Minolta Co., Ltd. History
Chuo-ku, Osaka 541
Telephone: (06) 271-2251
Fax: (06) 266-1010
Incorporated: 1937 as Chiyoda Kogaku Seiko Kabushiki Kaisha
Sales: ¥365.75 billion (US$3.66 billion) (1996)
Stock Exchanges: Tokyo Osaka Nagoya Frankfurt Düsseldorf
SICs: 3651 Household Audio & Video Equipment; 3661 Telephone & Telegraph Apparatus; 3827 Optical Instruments & Lenses; 3861 Photographic Equipment & Supplies
Founded in 1928, Minolta Co., Ltd. is a leading manufacturer of photocopiers and other image information products, cameras and other optical products, radiometric instruments, and planetariums. As Minolta has steadily cultivated new technologies and extended its established strengths into related areas, its operations have become increasingly diverse. Recently, the Company has been emphasizing the expansion of business in equipment and systems for inputting, outputting, and processing image-related information.
Since Kazuo Tashima began using German technology to produce one camera a day in 1928, Minolta Co., Ltd. has gone on to become one of Japan's Big Five camera makers. Although Minolta initially did so by copying German technology, it then developed new products on its own, and marketed them successfully in Europe and the United States. As the market for camera equipment matured in Japan, Europe, and the United States, the firm diversified into a number of related areas. Minolta is a major producer of cameras, photocopiers and other imaging products, radiometric instruments, and planetariums, with production facilities in Japan, the United States, Germany, France, Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, and Brazil, and a worldwide marketing network.
Founded in 1928 to Build Cameras in Japan
Minolta began modestly in 1928 when 28-year-old Kazuo Tashima agreed to represent his father's import-export company, Tashima Shoten, on a government-backed trade mission to Paris to promote Japanese silk. In Paris Tashima toured a factory that specialized in high-grade optics, and decided he could produce similar equipment in Japan profitably. Japanese businessmen, including Tashima's father, opposed the idea of producing optical equipment domestically. Unable to start his new venture as a part of Tashima Shoten, Tashima borrowed money from his father's chief clerk and went into business on his own.
Tashima opened shop on November 11, 1928, calling his venture Nichi-Doku Shashinki Shoten (Japan-Germany Camera Company). The name reflected the company's reliance on German technology and expertise. Partners Willy Heilemann, an importer of German items in Kobe, and Billy Neumann, a German engineer with a background in optical instruments, brought state-of-the-art German technology to the new firm. By March 1929 the staff of about 30 was producing each day one bellows camera, called the Nifcalette--with imported lens and shutter. Within three months, production had grown to 100 cameras a month.
A year later the Great Depression hit Japan hard, bringing labor strife and strikes. Tashima later referred to his company as "a small boat which set sail right into the storm." Nevertheless, Tashima promoted development of new camera models as the Depression intensified, and introduced several models in 1930 and 1931.
A new model introduced in 1933 first carried the Minolta brand name, which Tashima created. The name sounds like the Japanese word minoru-ta, which means ripening rice field. The term reminded Tashima of a proverb his mother frequently used, "The ripest ears of rice bow their heads lowest," meaning that the more successful one becomes, the more humble one must be. The name, however, also has a Western meaning, as an acronym for Machinery and Instruments Optical by Tashima.
In 1934 the company began to sell the Minolta Vest, the product that made its reputation. Like other camera companies, Minolta used sheepskin to make a flexible camera bellows. When a shortage of imported sheepskin threatened production, the company developed the first rigid bellows of synthetic resin for the Minolta Vest. The innovation made the Vest easier to focus and less expensive. For the first time, a Minolta product was successful outside of Japan.
The Vest's success made expansion possible. Tashima built new production facilities, including a factory devoted to lens production at Sakai. His emphasis on innovation led to the development of the first twin-lens reflex camera in Japan, the Minolta Flex, in 1937. That same year, Tashima reorganized and incorporated the company and renamed it Chiyoda Kogaku Seiko Kabushiki Kaisha (Chiyoda Optics and Fine Engineering Limited) to reflect its broader focus.
Produced Binoculars and Other Optical Products During World War II
In September 1940 Japan joined Germany and Italy in the Tripartite Pact, which divided Asia and Africa into spheres of influence. Japan's was to be Southeast Asia. As it became clear that war was ahead, Japanese military planners determined to develop precision optical equipment for range-finding, navigation, and bombing aids.
During World War II, when the U.S. military used electronics to track enemy ships and aircraft, the Japanese chose optics. Chiyoda Kogaku Seiko produced high-powered binoculars and other optical instruments with wartime uses. Demand was so high that it opened the Itami plant in 1942 solely to manufacture optical glass.
Japan ultimately was devastated by the war. One of the primary goals of the Allied occupation forces was the restoration of Japan's economy. That helped Tashima, who was just as determined to put Minolta back on its feet. Employees dug through the company's bombed-out factories to salvage parts. In 1946 the company produced Japan's first postwar camera, the Semi III.
Since the Japanese camera industry's major prewar competitors, the Germans, had been ruined during wartime bombing--while the Japanese developed their own optical industry--worldwide markets first opened to the Japanese in the postwar years. The Minolta Semi III was the first camera to be exported after the war, with a shipment of 170 cameras in 1947.
Also that year, Chiyoda Kogaku Seiko became the first company to produce coated lenses in Japan, and in 1948 it began to design and produce a camera to compete with the industry standard, the Leica 35 millimeter. Chiyoda Kogaku Seiko designed a new sand-cast body in which lenses could be changed, with a hinged back cover to make film loading easier. The new Minolta 35 included a faster f2.8 lens and more-dependable flash photography.
Expanded Exports Starting in Mid-1950s
The company still had to contend with its poor image in overseas markets. Japan had copied German lens technology, and the made-in-Japan label still implied goods of inferior quality. Other Japanese camera firms changed that perception. Takeshi Mitarai of Canon--then known as Precision Optical--persuaded U.S. occupation forces to stock his cameras in military stores. U.S. servicemen stationed in the East took their cameras home, and Japanese-made cameras soon came to stand for high-quality lenses. That new reputation was reinforced industrywide when U.S. photographers assigned to the Korean War began to use Nikon cameras; they claimed that their Nikon lenses were superior to the Leicas they were accustomed to using. Chiyoda Kogaku Seiko began exporting to the United States in 1955 through an agreement with the American firm FR Corp. The company introduced another breakthrough, the achromatic double-coated lens, in 1956, giving the company entry into the European market beginning late in 1957.
In 1958 Chiyoda Kogaku Seiko put its optical experience to a new use by building its first planetarium. The timing was propitious--the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik I, the first earth-orbiting artificial satellite, the year before, sparking new interest in space.
Also in 1958, Chiyoda Kogaku Seiko introduced its first single-lens reflex (SLR) camera. The SLR allowed a photographer to see exactly what was being shot through the camera lens by using an angled mirror that reflected the image to the viewer. Previous cameras--called rangefinder cameras--used two lenses, one to take the photo and one for the photographer to look through. When interchangeable lenses came into use in the early 1950s, the rangefinder posed problems: the photographer saw the same image no matter what lens was used, instead of seeing what the camera would actually photograph. The difference between the two images could be substantial. By the mid-1950s the major Japanese camera companies were developing the more convenient SLRs, and Chiyoda Kogaku Seiko introduced its version, the SR-2, in 1958. Its major competitor was Nikon's SLR, also introduced in 1958, which was recognized as the best of the SLRs at the high end of the market.
Chiyoda Kogaku Seiko opened its first overseas subsidiary, Minolta Corporation, in New York City in 1959. The company chose to name the subsidiary Minolta because of the popularity of its Minolta brand name. Shortly thereafter, in mid-1962, Chiyoda Kogaku Seiko changed its own name to Minolta Camera Co., Ltd. In the 1960s the company continued improving its camera line. It introduced the Uniomat, with a programmed shutter, in 1960, which led to fully programmed autoexposure in the Hi-Matic. In 1962 John Glenn chose the Hi-Matic to take the first photos of earth from space. In 1966 Minolta introduced its longest-running camera line, the SR-T series, which was produced continuously until 1981. These cameras featured through-the-lens light metering, using a patented light compensator to improve exposure in backlit photos. These new products made Minolta more competitive in Europe, so Minolta opened a European subsidiary, Minolta Camera Handelsgesellschaft, in Hamburg in 1965.
Diversification in the 1960s and 1970s
More importantly Minolta diversified. In 1960 the company entered the office copying market--an area that would prove as successful as cameras--when it produced the Copymaster. In 1962 it expanded into the data-retrieval field with the Minolta 401S microfilm reader-printer; and in 1965 the company opened its Mikawa plant, which produced the Minoltafax 41, the first copier that could reduce document size.
Minolta continued to develop its links with the U.S. space program, developing the Minolta Space Meter, a state-of-the-art technology for measuring exposures, for the first manned orbit of the moon, the 1968 Apollo 8 mission. The meter was used on nine more Apollo missions, including the mission that landed a man on the moon in 1969.
Minolta developed digital watches, video recorders, and pocket calculators in the 1970s, although not all the company's innovations were successful. In 1975 a Minolta-developed office copier that used a complex, high-resolution technology was launched just as plain-paper copiers took over the industry. The company introduced a single-lens reflex camera using cartridge film in 1976, but despite a $2 million U.S. advertising campaign the product was unsuccessful.
Other camera developments were more successful. In 1977 Minolta produced one of the first "smart" cameras. Its XD Series cameras had the first system to override user aperture settings in poor lighting.
Minolta also advanced in other areas. The company entered the field of medical instruments in 1977 with the development of a fingertip pulse oximeter. Its MS-18 Planetarium, built in Tokyo, contained the first fully automated planetarium system, and its new photocopiers produced higher-quality images and included both enlarging and reducing capabilities. Those successes were particularly important because the camera market was saturated in Japan, Europe, and the United States.
Redefined Corporate Image in the 1980s
Minolta responded by redefining itself. It adopted a new logo in 1981 to reflect its broader purpose, and redefined its mission as processing light and images in all types of environments.
In 1983 Tashima, who had run the company since he founded it, left active management. Tashima relinquished the presidency to his son, Hideo Tashima, and became chairman of the board, the position he held when he died in 1985.
In the 1980s Minolta made advances in office-automation products, including copiers and a new word processor, but new camera technology brought the company the most attention. In 1985 Minolta unveiled its Maxxum, a SLR 35-millimeter camera with an autofocusing system. The Maxxum became a successful competitor to the less-expensive non-SLR cameras, such as Canon's Snappy and AE-1. A U.S. advertising campaign costing over $15 million and technological advances that made the Maxxum the European Camera of the Year for 1985 aided its success. The Maxxum challenged Canon's preeminence in the 35-millimeter market, but it was not long before Minolta's Japanese competitors struck back with autofocus cameras of their own. Canon improved on the Maxxum by building the focusing system into the lens itself instead of housing it in the camera body with a mechanical link to the lens, as Minolta had done. Canon's advance made focusing faster, but its camera was more expensive than the Maxxum.
Minolta entered the facsimile machine market with the introduction of several models in 1986. Meanwhile, the company's planetariums became more sophisticated, first in 1984 with the launch of the Infinium--the first single sphere model that used lens projection--then in 1989 with the introduction of the Infinium, the first planetarium with a swing-type structure. Also developed by Minolta during this period were the first binoculars to offer continuous autofocusing, launched in 1990.
Difficult Times in the Early 1990s
Minolta suffered through a prolonged downturn in the early 1990s, with a number of developments contributing to the malaise. First, the camera market had become even more competitive in the late 1980s with the introduction of the first 35mm disposable camera, the QuickSnap from Fuji Photo Film, in 1987 and the first super-compact camera, Konica's Big Mini, in 1989. More convenient and less expensive than the bulky, feature-packed cameras offered by Minolta, Canon, and the other major camera makers, the new smaller models quickly caught on--with Fuji seemingly coming out of nowhere to attain the top spot in cameras by 1992. During the same period, video cameras--or camcorders--became increasingly affordable and further eroded the sales of the traditional cameras Minolta specialized in.
A second factor in Minolta's difficulties--although it affected the company's financial results in only one year, 1992--was the lawsuit filed by Honeywell Inc. in 1987 against Minolta. Honeywell had won approval for several patents relating to autofocus technology, which it had intended to use in its own 35mm camera but eventually abandoned the effort in the mid-1970s. When autofocus SLR cameras gained great popularity in the mid-1980s, Honeywell prepared lawsuits against nearly all the major camera makers. Minolta eventually settled with Honeywell out of court in 1992, agreeing to pay ¥16.9 billion (U.S.$125.1 million) for infringing patent rights. After posting a net loss of ¥2 billion in 1991, Minolta lost ¥36.1 billion in 1992 thanks in part to the settlement.
The third factor in the overall decline was the prolonged Japanese recession of the early 1990s, which hurt domestic sales, and the appreciation of the yen, which hurt exports&mdashout three-quarters of total sales in the early 1990s. Minolta's net sales declined for three straight years, starting in 1992. Although the company's losses narrowed each year, Minolta would not return to profitability until 1996. In the midst of these troubled years, in 1993 Hideo Tashima became chairman and Osamu Kanaya, who had served as president and COO of Minolta Corp., replaced Tashima as president.
Comeback Appeared Complete by 1996
To turn the company around, Tashima and Kanaya pursued three main objectives: moving production out of Japan to lessen the effects of the strong yen, developing a camera to compete in the compact category, and continuing to diversify the Minolta product line and derive a smaller percentage of revenues from cameras. The first objective of moving production overseas began to be implemented in 1992 with the establishment of Minolta Lorraine S.A., based in France. This facility was set up to make toner, lenses, and other components for imaging products; low-end copiers were then added to its assembly lines, with these products sold mostly in the European market. In 1994 production of plain-paper copiers and laser printers began in China through the Shilong Business Equipment Corporation subsidiary. That same year, Minolta entered into two joint ventures in China for the manufacture and sale of cameras and copiers.
In early 1995 Minolta successfully entered the compact camera category with the launch of the Riva Zoom 70W (known in Japan as the CAPIOS and in North America as the Freedom). Minolta also joined the cooperative development effort brought together by Eastman Kodak Co.--the others were Fuji, Canon, and Nikon--which created the Advanced Photo System (APS), an effort to revitalize the stagnant still photography market. APS offered easy loading and the ability to select from three photo sizes (4 inch by 6 inch, 4 inch by 7 inch, and a panoramic 4 inch by 10 inch) as pictures are taken. Minolta introduced a full line of APS cameras in early 1996 under the VECTIS brand. The VECTIS line included five compact models and a high-end SLR version that featured five interchangeable lenses. Later in 1996, Minolta launched a children's camera tied to a new animated series.
The company's desire for further diversification was highlighted in mid-1994 by the decision to change the company name to Minolta Co., Ltd., dropping "Camera." The company soon showed a renewed commitment to innovative new product development. In 1995 Minolta launched the BC 3000 book copying system, the first product able to produce high quality copies of bound books. Also in 1995, digital cameras were added to the Minolta product family with the marketing of the RD-175, touted as "one of the smallest and lightest SLR-type digital cameras in the world." Highlighting 1996 introductions were the CF 900 multifunction machine, able to copy, scan, and print in full color; and the Infinium 11, 11, and 11 planetariums, extensions of the Infinium line and "the world's first projectors to enable planetarium visitors to experience virtual worlds."
By 1996, Minolta had certainly begun to turn its fortunes around, although its profit margin of 1.2 percent was significantly lower than that of the mid-1980s. The diversification program seemed to be working; camera sales made up 44 percent of overall sales in 1991, but only 29.4 percent in 1996. Along with its revitalized reputation for innovation, Minolta appeared ready to be a major player in the high tech world of the 21st century.
Principal Subsidiaries: Minolta Camera Sales Co., Ltd.; Minolta Business Equipment Trading Co., Ltd.; Minolta Planetarium Co., Ltd.; Tokai Minolta Co., Ltd.; Kinki Minolta Co., Ltd.; Minolta Media Works Co., Ltd.; Aoi Camera Co., Ltd.; Sankei Seimitsu Kikai Co., Ltd.; Toyohashi Seimitsu Kogyo Co., Ltd.; Nara Minolta Seiko Co., Ltd.; Nankai Kougaku Kogyo Co., Ltd.; Okayama Minolta Seimitsu Co., Ltd.; Miki Minolta Kogyo Co., Ltd.; Fujikasei Co., Ltd.; Tokyo Minolta Camera Service Co., Ltd.; Minolta Hoken Daiko Co., Ltd.; Minolta Digital Studio Co., Ltd.; Dynax Trading Co., Ltd.; Minolta Logistics Co., Ltd.; Minolta Quality Service Co., Ltd.; Minolta Corporation (U.S.A.); Minolta Business Systems, Inc. (U.S.A.); Mohawk Marketing Corporation (U.S.A.); Astro-Tec. Mfg., Inc. (U.S.A.); Minolta Advance Technology Inc. (U.S.A.); Minolta Canada Inc.; Minolta Business Equipment (Canada), Ltd.; Minolta Copiadora do Amazonas Ltda. (Brazil); Minolta GmbH (Germany); Plankopie Vertriebsgesellschaft für Kopiersysteme GmbH (Germany); Minolta Bürosysteme GmbH Nürnberg (Germany); Minolta Bürosysteme GmbH München (Germany); Minolta Bürosysteme GmbH Frankfurt (Germany); Minolta Bürosysteme GmbH Berlin (Germany); Minolta France S.A.; Repro Conseil S.A. (France); Minolta Lorraine S.A. (France); Minolta (UK) Limited; Minolta (Schweiz) AG (Switzerland); Minolta Austria Gesellschaft mbH; Hernitz Bürosysteme Gesellschaft mbH (Austria); Minolta Camera Benelux B.V. (Netherlands); Minolta Europe Finance B.V. (Netherlands); Minolta Business Equipment (Belgium) N.V.; Minolta Svenska AB (Sweden); Minolta Business Equipment Sweden AB; Minolta Italia S.r.l. (Italy); Minolta Portugal Limitada; Minolta Business Equipment Spain S.A.; Minolta Denmark A/S; Minolta Magyarorszag Kft. (Hungary); Minolta Polska Sp. zo. o. (Poland); Minolta spol. sr. o. (Czech Republic); Minolta Slovakia spol. sr. o.; Minolta Romania s.r.l.; Minolta Baltia (Lithuania); Minolta Bulgaria o.o.d.; Minolta Ljubljana d.o.o. (Slovenia); Minolta Zagreb d.o.o. (Croatia); Minolta Beograd d.o.o. (Serbia); Minolta Ukraine; Shanghai Minolta Optical Products Co., Ltd. (China); Wuhan Minolta Wiaic Office Automation Equipments Co., Ltd. (China); Minolta Hong Kong Limited; Minolta Industries (HK) Limited (Hong Kong); Minolta Singapore (PTE) Limited; Minolta Marketing (M) Sdn. Bhd. (Malaysia); Minolta Malaysia Sdn. Bhd.; Minolta Precision Engineering (M) Sdn. Bhd. (Malaysia); Minolta New Zealand Limited; Minolta Business Equipment Australia Pty. Ltd.
- Bremner, Brian, "From the Mind of Minolta--Oops, Make that 'Honeywell,"' Business Week, February 24, 1992, p. 34.
- Hammonds, Keith H., "Polaroid and Minolta: More Developments Ahead?," Business Week, July 16, 1990, p. 32.
- Kusumoto, Sam, and Edmund P. Murray, My Bridge to America: Discovering the New World for Minolta, New York: Dutton, 1989.
- "Minolta Through Six Decades," Minolta Messenger, Number 7, 1988.
- Prud'homme, Alex, "New Believer," Business Month, August 1990, pp. 44-45.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 18. St. James Press, 1997.