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Saturday, May 26, 2007

SLR pioneer missed jump to digital


Staff writer

As the first Japanese company to commercialize a single-lens reflex camera for 35mm film, Pentax Corp. has a storied history. But that history may have prevented it from advancing into the digital age and delayed a crucial decision to be absorbed by Hoya Corp. for its own survival.

Pentax employees are more like artisans than cost-conscious businesspeople, explained Ryosuke Katsura, a senior analyst at Mizuho Securities Co.

"They believe good products should naturally sell well, and care less about such things as cost-benefit performance," Katsura said.

Pentax, in dire need of capital to develop digital products, agreed in December to merge with leading optical glass maker Hoya Corp. But after Hoya executives signaled that it might sell off the camera division after the merger, Pentax executives staged a coup in April and kicked President Fumio Urano off the board to scrap the plan. Urano was the main proponent of the surprise merger.

In the end, however, faced with unhappy investors and an unhelpful stock market, the Pentax board had no choice but to accept the Hoya takeover and performed an about-face. The confusion, Katsura said, was a symptom of Pentax's traditional corporate culture.

Pentax Director Shinichiro Mitsuhashi said the camera maker's management style is like that in "a back-street factory," whereas Hoya takes a rational approach and puts profit above all else.

"It's not that easy to integrate," Mitsuhashi reportedly said at a news conference May 11.

Pentax got its start as Asahi Optical Joint Stock Co. in 1919, a small factory that produced lenses for eyeglasses. After the family-run factory burned down during the air raids of World War II, it was reborn as a producer of binoculars and telescopes.

Asahi Optical finally made a name for itself in 1952, when it introduced the first Japanese 35mm single-lens reflex camera.

In 1954, the firm introduced the first SLR with a quick-return mirror, allowing the shooter to sight through the lens instead of the viewfinder. Until that time, most cameras had two separate lenses — one for the viewfinder and one for taking the photo. This meant the image in the viewfinder and the actual photograph never turned out exactly the same.

In addition to allowing photographers to see exactly what they were shooting, the quick-return mirror SLR solved a problem called "mirror blackout" by returning quickly to its original position.

In the 1960s, Pentax got embroiled in a patent war with Nikon Corp. over the quick-return system that was only settled by government intervention.

The quick-return mechanism was eventually adopted by every Japanese camera maker, allowing Japanese SLRs to dominate the global camera market. Thanks to this system, Pentax has been recognized as a pioneer in SLR technologies.

Electronic and digital technologies, however, have gradually eroded Pentax's competitive position, and digital cameras have advanced enough in quality, convenience and affordability to draw consumers away from traditional film-based cameras.

Now, Nikon and Canon Inc. control more than 80 percent of the global digital SLR market, according to market research firm BCN Inc.

Urano was the first person outside the founding family to be named president when he took the position in 2000. He was a rational manager who pushed for cost cuts and the alliance with Hoya, Mizuho's Katsura said.

Specializing in glass-related products for industrial use, Hoya is primarily interested in the growing, lucrative market for optical medical equipment, where Pentax enjoys a certain market share, Katsura said.



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