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Leica Camera AG in Leitz Park, Wetzlar, Germany, 2014


The Story Behind That Picture:
"The New Leica Factory in Wetzlar"

By: Thorsten Overgaard. April 17, 2014


This week Ms. Wagner will be the last Leica employee watching over the old factory in Solms. Everybody else has moved to the new factory in Wetzlar, the "Leica Campus" in monochrome and a few pops of red, with stunningly large bright windows and lots of fresh air, inside and outside.

A few days ago I visited the new factory in Wetzlar, and decided to visit the old one as well. Just for a final goodbye. I can say without reservation that I was the last customer ever to visit the factory in Solms.


Like the captain of a sinking ship, Ms. Wagner will be the last to leave the old Solms factory. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 II, April 11, 2014.


When I came in, everything looked as it usually does. The receptionist, Ms. Wagner behind the big red counter and Mr. Schermuly and Mr. Hartmann behind the glass wall, manning the Leica Store.

The trained eye would notice that the "Leica Tree" behind the glass wall to the conference room was ripped for it's fruits; 100 years of Leica camera models had now been taken down and moved to the new factory.

I already felt the nostalgia. I never really enjoyed the Leica Tree, but now I already missed this familiar piece of display.


The "Leica Tree" two years ago while Solms was still the buzzing HQ.


Apart from the three Leica employees left in reception, one of the conference rooms were occupied by Leica S experts from Asia, Australia and New Zealand. We knew because they all came down to breakfast in our hotel, to our mututal surprise.


Alone in Wonderland

Here we were, all alone in the Solms factory. So we decided to take an unguided farewell tour all by ourselves of the entire factory. Last time I saw it, it was in full swing with the three big blue monster machines behind a glass wall, grinding away day and night on their 5-8 hour rounds of grinding Noctilux aspherical surfaces. I still recall the orange lamp on the side of he machines blinking to me, as a secret morse code.

Now it was all empty...or was it?


The lens montage department ... or what was left of it. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 II.


With excitement we walked down one desolete hallway after the other, through secret doors and across big rooms to ensure we had seen it all, but not without a little hope that we might discover something.


Just a few days ago this area was only for entrusted Leica employees in dust-safe coats and dust-safe hats. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 II.


A few leftovers to keep the mouse company ... Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 II.


The machines in this department has most likely been moved to the new factory weeks ago. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 II.


On our way round we met a few people, here it is from the moving company taking out the last few bits. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 II.


Our trasures that we brought home from the now closed Leica Camera AG factory in Solms. A time capsule of old black and white photos from the PR department (Dr. Ludwig Leitz II in the top image), a 75mm front lens from the floor of the Lens Assembling Department, a magnetic 80's image from the Acquisition Department, a lens bag, one small box containing a mystery star shaped particle, and two very rare and very exclusive Leica Anti-Fog Solution bottles!


A few boxes waiting to get moved either to Wetzlar or to recycling ...


We thought about getting one of these. But where would we wear them? So we left them. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 II.


Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 II.

After a while we were confident we had seen it all. We headed back to the reception area where the Leica S people had finished lunch.

I took one of the remaining deserts from the table and enjoyed it in silence. A final ritual.


A few hours after this photo was taken, this precious red dot sign went on sale on eBay ... Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 II.
A few hours after this photo was taken, this precious red dot sign went on sale on eBay ... Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 II.


A transistion from the past to the future

It was nice to put things in perspective. Leica Camera AG is moving on and up, leaving behind a period of downfall, an almost bankrupcy and an old factory.

That's what I realized as I walked around the old and then the new headquater. The Solms factory was established in 1988 after a very uncertain period.

In the 70's Leica experienced the increasingly strong Japanese competition in the photo industry. In Germany there were collective agreements with wage and salary increases of 10% a year (for Leica 50% of the costs are labor). At the same time lending rates increased due to inflation to 10%. It was tough times and Leitz also had just ended the 30 year relationship with Japanese Minolta.


The capital of the Leitz family was almost entirely bound within the company and there were no other private financing options. The Leitz family decided to find a strong financial partner and choose Wild Heerbrugg AG who bought 25% of the company in 1972. The alternative Ernst Leitz III and Ludwig Leitz II had was mass-reduction with laying off 1,000 or more staff, not something seen as a viable solution through the optics of the Leitz tradition of managing the Leitz employees like a family.

  Dr. Werner Simon with Henri Cartier-Bresson
in 1988

CEO Dr. Werner Simon with Henri Cartier-Bresson
in 1988, presenting him with a Leica M6.

But there was more trouble to be faced. The first world oil crisis was in 1974 and a recession developed in Germany. Wild took over the majority of Leitz by the insistence of the banks, the Leitz family took the backseat as shareholders with 44% of the ownership.

It was obviously not an affluent camera producer that moved from the big headquarters in Wetzlar to the factory at the end of a small road in Solms in 1988. In the process up to that point Leica had also laid off some of the old and very skilled staff, and with them the knowledge and even the tools and spare parts for older camera models.

It's a sort of irony that the Leica brand is associated mostly - in fact almost entirely - with cameras. The camera division was (and is) only about 10% of the entire Leica staff (microsystems and geosystems make up the other 90%).

A film dinosaur in a digital age

All the way up untill 2002-2003 the management in Leica Camera AG believed that Leica was so unique that the world would come to it's senses again ... and return to film cameras.

So Leica kept producing them in the same stellar quality as always, without looking much further than to the green field outside the factory windows.


Scrounging through the old factory we found this image from a Scandinavian conference where the participants proudly display the "My Point of View" slogan in front of the Solms factory. Number two from right is Brian Felskov who owns Nordisk Foto Import A/S in Denmark that distributes to the Scandinavian countries.


The near-death experience of Leica

Andreas Kaufmann and his two brothers bought 27.4% of Leica Camera AG in 2004. They already knew the Leica people quite well as they had acquired a sub-supplier in 2002, the Weller Feinwerktechnik (which was a company a Leica employee, Uwe Weller, had established in 1994 as an outsourcing of Leica camera AG's machining division. Mr. Weller simply took over machines and people from Leica and started delivering to Leica while also expanding to other areas).

The year after, in 2003, the Kaufmann brothers acquired Via Optik that was originally established in 1922 by Ernst Letiz GmbH, as a supplier of mechanical components to Leica, and later viewfinders for SLR cameras (Feinwerktechnik Wetzlar GmbH).

Andreas Kaufmann planned to spend a year to get into the Leica thinking and see what was next. But already after few months into 2004 it all blew up in his hands. Management, financing and all.

Dr. Andreas Kaufmann
  Dr. Andreas Kaufmann. ©Thorsten Ovegaard.

How he managed to get it all turned around, and in the process had to buy out his two brothers, is perhaps another story for another day. But fact of the matter is that by 2011, Leica Camera AG was owned almost 100% by Kaufmann, had a succesfull Leica M9 full frame rangefinder on the market, had paid off most of the debts and was financing the business with it's own cash-flow.

Andreas Kaufmann does not believe in the stock market. It's a casino, he says. He believe that if one has a bit of luck, a good management team and a good strategy, one can build value within a company by producing valuable products. And it worked.

Apart from building new Leica Stores and the new ambitious Leica S medium format camera system, Leica Camera AG also wanted to build a new factory.

And here it is:



The New Leica Campus


Leica Camera AG in Leitz Park, Wetzlar, Germany, 2014
The buzzing canteen with bright wide windows to the square in front of the factory. Here everybody from inside and outside the factory meets at lunchtime and enjoy healthy fresh cooked food, coffee and each others company.
Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 II


Despite a couple of years delay as a result of the global financial crisis, the factory is now a reality. The two earlier acquired companies, Via Optik and Weller moved into the Leitz Park a few year ago.

With the Leica Camera AG headquarter finished, the Leitz Park now looks and feels like a Leica Campus.


Leica Camera AG in Leitz Park, Wetzlar, Germany, 2014
Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95


On a large square outside, with a fountain and a cozy glass cafe in the middle, the three companies face each other. Via Optik and Weller are based on Leica history and knowledge and supply to Leica. Somewhere in one of the buildings is also CW Sonderoptik (that was established in 2007 to manufacture Leica C cine lenses). And Weller already has one more building elsewhere in Wetzlar to fulfill the demand. And far from the Leica Campus in Wetzlar is the Portugal factory that opened a new factory in 2013 and is set to double in size within reasonable time.


Leica Camera AG in Leitz Park, Wetzlar, Germany, 2014
I could spend a few hours here every day, drinking coffee while listening to the fountain. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 II


Inside the factory is the entire Leica staff busy; from the large reception in front, through the r&d and production in the middle of the building, to the warehouse all the way back in the building.

It has the feel of the Apple Computer of Wetzlar, lots of young and bright people about.

The contrast from the Solms factory to the new Wetzlar is breathtaking.


Leica Camera AG in Leitz Park, Wetzlar, Germany, 2014
Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 II


Amongst familiar faces in the canteen we stumbled into lens designer Peter Karbe. He has gotten new glasses, and he is very happy to work in the new bulding.


Leica Camera AG in Leitz Park, Wetzlar, Germany, 2014
The new cafe that was almost open with outdoor and indoor seating when we visited. It has lots of light, great design and a huge espresso-machine. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 II


We visited Customer Service to get some cameas and lenses adjusted. There are four people working in the Customer Service reception, ready to take care of visitors. As far as I know they were in place in the new factory already in January.


My small dragon babies ... Three bodies and three lenses to be nursed for some days.


We left the cameras in the hands of Leica and headed towards Denmark after a few days in Wetzlar and Solms. Confident that Leica Camera AG is doing quite well and that the competent employess have gotten a new and suitable space to perform their magic in.

And a place where also visitors from all over the globe will be welcome.

Very much in track of the original Leitz values and knowledge.


Leica Camera AG in Leitz Park, Wetzlar, Germany, 2014
A look up from outside the entrance. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 II


When we left, only the engraving department was not set up yet, and the Leica Store Wetzlar was in the final stages of getting ready. But the rest was in place. In a few days the Leica Store Wetzlar too will be open for business - the biggest Leica Store in the world, as well as the Leica Gallery.


Leica Camera AG in Leitz Park, Wetzlar, Germany, 2014
A look inside the new 'outdoor' cafe that I'm sure will be the meeting place for many visitors stumbling into old and new Leica friends. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 II


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The hotel to stay in, when in Wetzlar

Most people visiting Leica in the past have been staying at the Wetzlarer Hof hotel, but we wanted to check out new hotels closer to the new Leica factory. In fact, we tried two of them. We found one within walking distance from the new factory, the Hotel Blankenfeld that turned out not only to be closer, but also really good. So that is recommendable.


The Hotel Blankenfeld is a cozy hotel just a few hundred meters from the new Leica factory.


As we sat and enjoyed our morning coffee at 06.00 AM with our recently acquired jetlag from 20 hours flight from Melbourne the day before, one familiar face after the other came dripping down the stairs to the restaurant, from Korea, Singapore, Tokyo and New Zealand. It was hard to know who was most surprised, them or us, and it was a good start of the day. And a proper christening of the hotel as the new Leica hotel in town.


Breakfast buffet at the Hotel Blankenfeld where the WiFi is all about, as is the coffee and friendly service.

Thorsten Overgaard
Thanks to Knut Kühn-Leitz



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Above: "We got a nice new sofa in the reception last week," an employee told me, "so now there is a place to sit".
Inside Leica Camera AG
Am Leitz Park 1
Wetzlar, Germany.
Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 II.


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Thorsten Overgaard
Thorsten von Overgaard is a Danish-American multiple award-winning photographer, known for his writings about photography and Leica cameras. He travels to more than 25 countries a year, photographing and teaching workshops to photographers. Some photos are available as signed editions via galleries or online. For specific photography needs, contact Thorsten Overgaard via email.

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