This story began in Cologne on September 18 at the Carl Zeiss Photokina Dinner and Distributor of the Year Presentation. It was a room with a view, a view to a skill, with James Bond imagery fresh from the lobby festooned with “Skyfall” posters (shot with breathless ARRI/ZEISS Master Prime lenses) and an elevator ride to the breathtaking top floor of KölnSKY, a modern restaurant and event space 300 feet above the city.
We were a few blocks from the vast Photokina Convention Center (Köln Messe) where ZEISS introduced a new 55 mm f/1.4 full-format SLR EF and F mount lens, a new line of autofocus lenses for mirrorless cameras, and new CP.2 prime and zoom lenses.
As the sun set behind the Cologne Cathedral, Dr. Winfried Scherle, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Carl Zeiss AG Camera Lens Division, presented the Distributor of the Year Award to the Shriro Group. I wanted to find out more. Who were these guys, and how were they selling so many lenses? I stayed in touch with Shriro (H.K.) Ltd Managing Director Egon Heldner as he traveled the world.
Jon Fauer: What is Shriro? How did it begin? Most of our readers would be interested.
Egon Heldner: Shriro Group is a global company employing over 3000 people in Asia, Europe and the United States. The company was started over a Century ago, in 1906 to be precise, when the grandparents of our current owner, Mr. Mark Shriro, emigrated from Russia to Harbin in Northeastern China and started a trading business. That business now ranges from manufacturing and/or marketing of photographic products, action sports equipment, life-saving medical devices, printing, consumer goods, construction equipment, and materials.
Tell us about yourself — a Swiss gentleman who lives in Hong Kong?
I spent the first half of my career working in marketing related positions with manufacturing countries in various industries in my home country Switzerland. At the age of 32, I gave in to a long-harbored urge to discover the world and I started my second career with a Swiss Manufacturer of high-end jewelry in Hong Kong, touring the world on the hunt for business and new design trends most of the time. After this first assignment, I decided to stay in Asia and started my second career in the distribution business, touring Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and again Hong Kong in various general management positions with a large and multi-divisional Swiss distribution conglomerate. In the early days of the 21st century, I decided to acquire a small Hong Kong based company specializing in high-end end photography equipment. After that, I joined the Shriro Group.
What is the Hasselblad connection. How did that happen?
Having distributed both the Nikon and Hasselblad brands in Asia for many decades and built them into major market players, the Shriro Group had long been close to the high-end photography sector. In 2003, after Nikon had gone their own way, Shriro acquired Hasselblad when the Swedish company was in a dire situation facing the sudden surge of digital photography. One year later, leading Danish digital back manufacturer Imacon was integrated into Shriro, and Hasselblad worked its way back to the top end of medium-format digital photography. In 2011, with the digital transformation concluded, but Hasselblad still operating in the narrow medium-format segment, Shriro went back to its role as a distributor and left Hasselblad in the hands of German Venture Capital Company Ventizz, which had committed to extend the reach of the legendary brand into new and larger consumer segments. As an initial result of this development, Hasselblad announced the impending launch of the Hasselblad ‘Lunar’ camera project at Photokina 2012.
How and when did you get involved with ZEISS?
In the wake of the Hasselblad / Imacon merger (at the time of the merger Imacon was distributed by a small and specialized photography equipment distribution company that I had acquired in 2003), I was invited to join the Shriro Group and to head their photography business in Hong Kong and China. Along with me, and with my experienced team, came the distribution of prestigious brands such as Gitzo and Broncolor and we were keen as a Group to further expand our product offer to professional photographers and advanced photo amateurs. The relationship with Carl Zeiss started in Japan, when our local subsidiary assumed responsibility for regional logistics for the emerging line of high performance photographic products (initially the ZEISS Ikon camera and M mount manual focus lenses, soon to be expanded by Nikon and Canon mount lenses) and our Asian subsidiaries got involved with the distribution of these superb photographic tools.
How did you become dealer of the year? Why would a company in Hong Kong / China sell more ZEISS lenses than anyone else?
When we got involved with ZEISS manual focus lenses, China very fast became one of the world’s major markets for this product line. With China being one of Hasselblad’s strongest markets, ZEISS optics had earned a very strong reputation of over the years. The ZEISS / Shriro relationship proved to be a highly effective pairing helped by a number of factors such as a strongly growing economy with a very large community of photographic enthusiasts. There were several things in our favor: Carl Zeiss being a leading optics company delivering ambitious products in uncompromising quality, a fast expanding Nikon and Canon DSLR community, a competent and enthusiastic Shriro team in all major locations, and last but not least, a close and constructive cooperation between distributor and manufacturer. Our only limitation was Carl Zeiss’ ability to satisfy the strongly growing market demand. But we never forgot to build a solid reputation for the brand by ensuring close contact with the end-user, regular dealer and end-user education as well as good customer service and support. Carl Zeiss has been a rock-solid business partner to us, taking the need for long-term brand building and the related need for strict territorial policies seriously. This has largely kept our back free to build brand awareness and consumer loyalty and I believe it is exactly that aspect, not necessarily the sheer sales numbers, that has earned us the prestigious award as ZEISS Best Distributor worldwide in 2012.
Please discuss ZEISS lenses — and why they are so popular in your territory.
ZEISS has a tremendous global reputation as a leading scientific company and a company with deep involvement in optical engineering. The long partnership with Hasselblad in the time of the analog V system and with others had earned the company a leading position in photo optics. Later on, the cooperation with major Japanese camera manufacturers helped to widen brand awareness and market penetration. With the launch of the Zeiss Ikon Camera and Leica mount lenses, followed by Nikon and Canon mount, all sticking to the principle of manual focusing in the interest of optimal optical performance, the company’s position in high-end photography was again cemented in the digital age. With the onset of HD video recording with DSLRs, Carl Zeiss started to capitalize on its long and successful involvement together with ARRI in the cine lens business by launching the CP.2 entry-level cine lens range with exchangeable mounts. This clever move opened another vast playing field and will see Carl Zeiss benefitting from both the growing use of still cameras for videography as well as the amateur and pro cinematography market. ZEISS has meanwhile expanded the CP.2 range with lightweight and compact zoom lenses and with a range of high speed compact prime lenses and, during Photokina 2012, it introduced 3 new autofocus lenses for mirrorless cameras with X and E mount. The Carl Zeiss photo and cine lens business is currently set up stronger than ever and we are bound to see a further expansion of the brand’s market position. The best way to convince consumers is to let them look through a ZEISS lens, to let them take a picture and look at the result. Carl Zeiss lenses are so popular simply for their incredible look and feel and the outstanding result they produce, it’s as simple as that!
Who are the people at Shriro?
The major strength of our Imaging operation in Hong Kong / China and in the region sources from the company’s long tradition in the market and the outstanding set of people forming the sales teams located in all major cities in the countries we operate, from glitzy Hong Kong to Hanoi in the Northern part of Vietnam. The sales teams of our China organization, which are located in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, accumulate over 300 years of experience in photographic equipment business. The team includes old hands of the trade with over 30 years of experience as well as young cracks. We have been using the internet in a very powerful way, connecting a geographically widespread Group as though we were all sitting in the same office. The one thing that unites us all is a passion for photography and a commitment to customer service.
Are you involved in motion picture cameras?
By introducing the ZEISS CP.2 lens range to DSLR users we became involved in the cine and video environment a few years ago. Meanwhile we have decided to expand our activity in this sector and we are currently building a portfolio of peripheral camera accessories and hopefully someday we will get involved in the distribution of a motion picture camera as well.
Where do you see the lens business heading?
Among keen amateurs, professional photographers and filmmakers, lenses are generally considered the most vital part of the equipment, a crucial creative tool by itself and an absolutely decisive factor in the resulting still or moving picture. Yet the lens business is determined by the strategic moves of the camera industry and the main challenge of specialized lens makers like ZEISS is to read the camera market correctly and to make the right lens mounts, aperture and focal length range, optical characteristics and other features to fit as close as possible to the demand. Specialized lens makers like Carl Zeiss are firmly established in the industry and I believe they will continue to play a major role as they tend to be very reactive to consumer trends and gaps in the market offer of camera manufacturers. The demand structures are very widespread, ranging from convenience-focused segments where zoom and autofocus lenses are the preferred option to creativity-focused segments where prime lenses play an important role. Of course, Carl Zeiss is clearly positioned in the upper echelons in terms of optical performance and price, but as consumers start to snap happy moments early in their lives, the more pictures they take and look at, the higher the urge to take better pictures. That is when they get involved with more powerful cameras and lenses and most keen enthusiasts will one day want to own a ZEISS lens. Smartphones and other devices have changed the way we live and even the way we take and share pictures, but as people get more serious about picture taking, the wish to use a dedicated image taking device is not going to go away anytime soon. Obviously, the professional sector which is setting creative trends and developing new styles and techniques is playing a major role upholding that fascination.
We also heard from several other key players at Shriro. Kwan Ling Tak, Manager of the Camera Department of Shriro (HK) Ltd., with 38 years of experience, said, “The Hasselblad V system was very famous in the 20th century, not least because of the outstanding Carl Zeiss lenses. Nowadays people know it is a good lens if it bears the ZEISS logo, because of its history and the fact that it never lets people down. The images tell the truth right away.”
Joyce Chang, China Business Development Manager stationed in Beijing has a Bachelor’s Degree in Business and trained as a photo marketing specialist. She said, “I first learned of the Carl Zeiss name and its good reputation when I joined the camera business as a ‘freshman’ back in 1997. Carl Zeiss has become known for its quality to almost every photographer in China. As part of the team running the Carl Zeiss lens business in China, I am so proud of that.”