Slow to Refocus

Late to Digital, Leica Slow to Refocus:

German Camera Pioneer Fired American CEO Who Pressed for Filmless Future

By MIKE ESTERL

SOLMS, Germany — Leica Camera AG’s employment dispute with fired Chief Executive Steven Lee brings to light the venerable German company’s troubles moving into the digital age.

The quirky company, which helped create modern photography in the early 20th century, stuck too long with film technology and now faces mounting losses and sinking sales.

Since 2006, Leica has been controlled by Andreas Kaufmann, a 54-year-old German aristocrat. A wealthy photography aficionado, he decided to buy the company to rescue it. Mr. Kaufmann imported Mr. Lee, an aggressive American executive from Best Buy Co.

As part of a turnaround effort, Mr. Lee pressed longtime employees to turn out digital products more quickly. He also tried to replace Leica’s small network of specialty dealers with Internet sales and kiosks in upscale resorts.

Mr. Kaufmann eventually fired Mr. Lee after employees complained about his management and the company’s sales slumped. “My mandate was not to be Mr. Nice Guy,” says Mr. Lee, 54, who worked for two decades at International Business Machines Corp. before becoming a Best Buy executive. He recently moved back to Minneapolis and is suing Leica for wrongful dismissal. A German court held a hearing in June but has issued no ruling.

Leica helped pioneer the 35-millimeter film format that took photography out of the studio and into the streets. Many of the 20th century’s most arresting moments of revolution, war and its aftermath were captured by Leicas, the camera clutched by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Robert Capa and other photographers.

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