Leica in Troubled Waters — Strategic Investor Blackstone Ups Pressure

Looks like major management changes could be ahead at the German boutique camera maker Leica who’s increasingly troubled by QC issues, supply chain problems and dissent between strategic investor Blackstone and the current Leica leadership under CEO Alfred Schopf and chairman Andreas Kaufmann. German business insider newsletter Der Platow Brief was first to report the internal Leica upheaval, followed by German Manager Magazin reporting the “end of coziness,” saying Leica’s chief marketing officer Oliver Kaltner since the end of 2014, a former Microsoft and Sony guy, is going to replace Schopf as CEO.

As seen in better days: Leica CEO Alfred Schopf (right) with his majority owner Andreas Kaufmann at the opening of the three-story Leica store in Los Angeles in June 2013.
As seen in better days: Leica CEO Alfred Schopf (right) with his majority owner Andreas Kaufmann at the opening of the three-story Leica store in Los Angeles in June 2013.
Wouldn’t be the first time that venture capital runs a venerable company into the ground. Talking Microsoft, what again happened to Nokia?! Leica’s not yet there, but don’t underestimate Blackstone, a venture capital firm that had no relationship at all with cameras or photography when they injected a major capital infusion into Leica in 2011 to become a strategic investor while Austrian ACM Projektentwicklung GmbH, controlled by Andreas Kaufmann, remained the majority shareholder.

The financial affairs of Leica remain an opaque mystery to this day. Try buying Leica shares. Not possible. But it’s hardly rocket science that Leica is facing growing pressure from many fronts. User forums suggest QC became a major issue. Hardware didn’t live up to the hefty price tags while the competition’s imaging technology seems light years ahead. Now management tensions have spilled into the public domain.

Some time ago confidential sources told me that Austrian investor Andreas Kaufmann is about to be axed. Well he seemed to have managed to divert the pressure to Alfred Schopf, whom Kaufmann brought aboard after the turn of the millennium to save Leica from bankruptcy. It’s not known whether Kaufmann still holds his 51% majority. What’s known though is:

Blackstone didn’t acquire a 44% share for about $300 million in Leica because they’re nice. They want to make money. Now they’re pushing a marketing guy? Doesn’t marketing sell air bubbles? What about experience and knowing the industry? Cameras and Leica are Kaufmann’s and Schopf’s Herzblut. COO Markus Limberger as new CEO would certainly make more sense than an industry outsider.

The battle for Leica’s future is on. Reports Leica Rumors:

Some reports even suggest that Blackstone Capital is looking to quickly “dump” their Leica investment and Panasonic is most likely the candidate for replacement. There have been unconfirmed reports that Leica recently posted internal losses in all but two global markets which could explain the recent U.S. discounts. There seems to be also some issues with licensing fees for the use of the Leica brand name.

  • leica reminds a vinyl record player make. leica refuses to evolve. but industry pushes it and it forcedly does baby steps little by little. this is called – living in denial.

  • Bengt Nyman

    Leica slipped into the dark a long time. The times when you could demand big money for just a simple camera are gone.

    The line of victims are growing rapidly; If it started with Kodak and Polaroid, Hasselblad, Leica and others are likely to follow.

    If the total camera-only market falls below half of earlier levels the market is likely to have to restructure through buyouts and mergers.

    The market for serious, dedicated cameras will always be there but the numbers might drop to a fraction of what they have been. This will further drive up their cost enabling smartphones and hybrid cameras to gather additional market share.

    No matter what, I see interesting camera times ahead.

  • Omer

    The high prices of Leica stuff is not a problem, but the quality control issues are, I would think. If Panasonic does indeed become a major shareholder they could help in that regard.

  • Silvestro Crino

    What happened to Nokia, and Blackberry for that matter, is that they got complacent and locked into their existing technology so that they soon became irrelevant in the face of other more technically and creatively adventurous companies. That sounds exactly like Leica to me. If you are going to charge $7000 for a camera body it better be the best camera body available. No Leica camera fits that description. Not even the ridiculous Lenny Kravitz edition.

  • It’s the unique glass and legacy users that keep Leica alive. The latter is a dying breed, the past will be extinct rather sooner than later. Judgment day approaching.

  • Foondos Stamati

    Love vinyl! The process is part of the enjoyment. Jazz is no longer appreciated, but it is still beautiful. Leica, please don’t become like everybody else…

  • danielpicasso

    They needed Steve Jobs! Even without Steve, the Apple product designers-think tank can infuse creative ideas into Leica’s already legacy brand- and fix QC and dust off their stale thinking….