The man behind the lens: Sigma CEO Kazuto Yamaki

"My main priority is to continue the business and protect my employees," said Mr Kazuto Yamaki, 47, chief executive officer of Sigma Corporation.

It is a philosophy that has guided the Japanese camera and lens maker well through its over 50 years of existence.

Founded in 1961, Sigma primarily makes third-party lenses. It ventured into digital cameras in 2002. Unlike many Japanese camera makers, Sigma has remained a privately-owned family business.

It is also the world's largest independent lens maker, despite being smaller than other imaging giants. The company has a staff strength of around 1,700. In comparison, Nikon and Olympus have work forces of around 25,000 and 40,000, respectively.

So how has Sigma been able to compete against the bigger players? According to Mr Yamaki, who was in Singapore recently, his father's philosophy of "small office, big factory" is one factor. It has kept the company lean.

About 75 per cent of the company's 1,700 staff are engineers. There are only 25 people in the marketing department. Other departments, like administration, are kept small as well.

Mr Yamaki took over the helm of Sigma in 2012 when his father Michihiro, Sigma's founder, died at the age of 78.

"My father always told me that I must take over the business," said Mr Yamaki. He has a younger sister.

He joked that his father regretted not having another son because he is not very capable. On a more serious note, he recounted how he grew up with the business that his father founded.

To save costs, his father moved the business from central Tokyo to suburban Tokyo when he was born.

"It was a five-storey building and we lived on the top level. I lived there until I was 24," he said. Hence, he knew all the employees with whom he grew up.

"I knew the business was tough but I also knew I have to take care of them (employees)," he said.

Upon graduation with a business degree from Tokyo's Sophia University in 1993, he was asked by his father to join the company.

Mr Yamaki was apprehensive, but his university professor convinced him that he should join Sigma as soon as possible.

"He said if I join Sigma, say, after 10 years, as a manager, the employees will dismiss me as just a second-generation leader and not support me," Mr Yamaki recounted.

His first job at Sigma was to work as a mechanical engineer, before working up the ranks to become project manager of the digital camera department in 2000.

After meeting image-sensor maker Foveon for a collaboration, Sigma released its first digital camera, the SD9, in 2002, before buying Foveon in 2008.

Today, digital cameras form only 10 per cent of Sigma's business and it is not making money. "It might sound strange to hear it from a CEO (about a money- losing business), but making cameras is our dream and passion," Mr Yamaki said.

He added that it was also his father's dream to become a camera manufacturer. They felt Sigma can contribute to the camera industry by providing a complete system of interchangeable lens camera.

Technically speaking, Mr Yamaki said making digital cameras also makes sense as it helps in its core lens-making business.

"By making the camera and lens together for a full system, we understand better how important the lens is," he said.

Despite being hit by the rapid appreciation of the Japanese yen in 1995 and the subsequent Asian financial crisis, Sigma insisted on keeping its factory in Japan when others have moved overseas to save costs. Mr Yamaki also took pride in the heritage of the company's Aizu factory in Japan, which has a long history of making lenses. "We could retain the experienced workers in the factory and polish the lenses with higher yield," he said.

Unlike digital camera technology, lens-making expertise cannot be easily copied.

"Lens still goes by the traditional basic laws of physics," he said.

"I think the company which has the highest standard of lens technology will be the winner (in the camera industry) in the future."

This article was first published on Oct 7, 2015.
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