Stefan Daniel Interview, part 3

This is the final installment of the Stefan Daniel Saga. Candid reflections on the move from Wetzlar to Solms, why customer input drives product development at Leica, and how the M9 and X1 were designed and delivered in record time.

As Division Manager, Product Management at Leica Camera AG. Stefan Daniel is intimately involved in formulating and implementing the company’s product priorities and in guiding its strategic marketing decisions. His profound understanding of Leica’s unique identity, his lifelong commitment to the tradition, and his keen insights on how Leica will diversify going forward while maintaining its noble heritage are evident in his observations that follow.

“I was very fortunate that the last year of my apprenticeship in the repair department was spent in Wetzlar before Leica moved to Solms in 1988, because I was able to experience the Leica tradition very directly. Nobody, including myself, was happy about the move to Solms at the time, but ultimately it proved to be the best way to save Leica Camera. At the Leitz, Wetzlar factory we made everything—microscopes, binoculars, cameras, lenses, etc. However this mixed manufacturing policy doesn’t work so well when it covers a range of products that are based on totally different business models. For example, binoculars and cameras are marketed to individuals whereas microscopes are long-term investment products sold on a business-to-business basis. Traditionally, our knowledge base in microscope optics benefitted the development of camera lenses, but we were now dealing with an array of technologies that were already well established over 25 years ago so the ben3efits of synergy were minimal at that point. Those are the underlying reasons that the move to Solms was a wise decision.”

“Our passion for the product is the very same passion our customers continually express to us. Their pride of ownership integrates directly with the pride of our employees and their dedication to excellence—they’re really two sides of the same coin. In short our marketing strategy really hinges on marketing trends, and these in turn, are determined by heartfelt input from our customers. A classic example of how this works is the incredibly rapid development of the Leica M9. It was spurred by the extraordinarily intense customer reaction to the M8, typically a nod of appreciation accompanied by passionate pleas for an upgraded full-frame version. By late 2007 we were already thinking about this internally, and by May 2008 the M9 development project was already underway. Based on our excellent partnerships with Kodak who developed the sensor based on our specs, and Jenoptik, the noted software company, we were able to go into limited production of the M9 by September 2009—an amazing feat for a specialist company like Leica. Of course the M8 provided an excellent foundation, but developing a modified chassis along with a larger sensor was challenging. The fact that we were able to do both in under a year and a half is the passion of Leica at work–the passion of our employees to get it done; the power to realize our customers’ dreams and actualize them in record time.”

“The fact that Rudi Spiller, our CEO, recognizes the true power source within in our company, and the consumer commitment behind it was a major factor in our success. This is the kind of passion that enables us to do extraordinary things now, and to continue to do so in the future. It’s the real reason Leica is still around. The underlying theme of what our customers are saying to us is ‘I want to help.’ That’s why I believe we have the best customers in the world—they’re passionate and they tell us very directly what they want and need. Other companies pay huge sums of money to conduct market research, but we get it free of charge because of our shared passion for the product. If we can turn their dreams and wishes into reality, they’re happy—that’s what happened with the Leica M9.”

“The creation of the Leica X1 is a different story of course, but the underlying theme is quite similar. The basic X1 concept is a high-performance compact camera with a Leica M or even a „Barnack Leica” form factor, a large sensor, and a superb lens. We developed this idea based on looking at the total array of Leica products and noticing where there were holes in the range. It soon became evident that there was a large gap in between the $700 or so price point of Leica digital compacts and the $7,000 cost of a Leica M9. Should we go for a micro 4/3-sensor camera? No, because we wanted an even larger sensor that provided a 3:2 aspect ratio that was more in keeping with the Leica tradition. The X1 concept was actually conceived and spearheaded by Kaoru Mokunaka, a former member of Panasonic, who decided to join the Leica Product Management team in 2007 for the compact cameras. In a way he was more German than us, able to see the project from the outside and to arrive at the right mixture of performance and form factors. His philosophy: Make the camera as compact as possible with the biggest available sensor, and make it a real Leica.”

“Essentially Leica camera is moving forward into the 21st Century based on a three-pillar corporate structure—sport optics (that is, binoculars) consumer products including the Leica M system, the X1 and the new V-LUX 20, and the professional market which has historically hinged on providing the ultimate in image quality. In this way Leica will have a stable structure able to withstand the vicissitudes of the marketplace and economic fluctuations. The linchpin of the professional market is of course the newly developed Leica S2 system, based on a camera and lenses designed to meet the extreme quality expectations of high-end professionals, but with a form factor similar to a 35mm-based full-frame DSLR—in short, a camera that’s equally at home in the field and in the studio with 35mm-style handling and 4×5 image quality.”

“Like the M9, the S2 is a camera that reflects the passionate demands of countless professional photographers and diehard Leica fans, many of whom have expressed reservations about the lens quality of other medium format systems. This is an area where we really shine, and we’re in the process of creating an expanding line of digitally optimized S2 lenses from scratch under the able leadership of Peter Karbe, our chief optical designer. He is a genius at leveraging our unique heritage in optical design to develop lenses that deliver the distinctive ‘Leica look’ as well as unsurpassed imaging performance, contrast, and color fidelity. Indeed, it is fitting that I mention a specific individual because it says something crucial about Leica Camera itself—namely that it’s all about people—the dedicated people inside the company, and our demanding, critical, persistent, extremely loyal, and utterly wonderful customers.”

-Jason Schneider