Life through a lens
While many rival camera-makers have been battered by the advent of the smartphone, Canon is still zooming in worldwide. Sally Reid CA tells Ryan Herman how a mixture of specialism and diversification keeps the Japanese company’s picture perfect.
Sally Reid CA’s former employers at the Union Street branch of Dixons in Glasgow would be ever so proud of their one-time Saturday worker. Reid was a student at the University of Strathclyde when she got a part-time job working in the store’s camera section.
“I remember being told that Canon was known as a prestige camera brand, and a company with a good reputation,” she says. That was 1993. Fast forward to 2016 and Reid would find herself in Lagos, Nigeria, orchestrating Canon’s strategy in countries across Africa and the Middle East. “When I first got to Nigeria I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people in Lagos. But it was a fantastic experience, and the thing about Africa is that everyone wants to improve themselves and be successful,” she says.
As Finance Business Development Director for Emerging Markets, Reid and her team deployed a combination of social media and CSR to try to conquer the African market. “We used brand ambassadors to engage with younger people online who were coming out of education and were interested in tech,” she says. “We also sent our own people out with pro photographers to run workshops, and hand out demo equipment. The idea was to train young Nigerians so they could start their own businesses as photographers.
This strategy had already shown great results in markets such as Kenya and Ghana.”
Having an on-the-ground presence can also mean avoiding the sort of problems you wouldn’t consider in the UK. Reid explains, “If you’re trying to sell remotely, for example, you might not be aware of a voltage issue. You can’t adopt a one-size-fits-all approach.”
The value of this strategy is borne out by the fact that Canon enjoyed 20% growth per annum in Africa in 2019, Reid’s last year working in emerging markets.
Some territories, however, have to be managed from a distance, for obvious reasons. “We have distributors in areas like Syria and Iraq, so we’re not on the ground there ourselves. People are not coming to you with typical problems – they are contacting you to say their showroom has been bombed. You have to be compassionate in those situations. But it also means that very little fazes you.”
Riding the storm
Canon’s success in emerging markets helps to explain why it has managed to navigate a path through a period of extraordinary disruption for the camera industry, one in which smartphones have stolen much of the market for their products. But it also comes down to the company’s structure and ethos. “Even if Canon has a great product, there will still be people in Japan thinking ‘but how can we make it better?’” says Reid.
By contrast, the rapid spread of digital technology saw several of Canon’s competitors become the architects of their own downfall, whether through misjudged launches, poor leadership or a failure to fully embrace the digital cameras they had once pioneered.
“After the global economic crash in 2008, a few of our competitors struggled,” says Reid. “Part of the reason was that some had become a bit complacent. But another thing is that our corporate structure means we are very focused on generating our own cashflow. We can be agile and adjust to market conditions because maybe we don’t have the huge levels of debt some companies have. That allows you to do some acquisitions for complementary businesses or to purchase tech. We reinvest 8% in R&D every year and Canon has been in the top five companies for around 30 years when it comes to filing new patents in the US.”
Continuous learning and development have underpinned the company’s success since it was founded in Japan in 1937. Throughout the 1930s, the German-made Leica was the best camera on the market, but it came at a price – around six times the monthly starting salary of an elite university graduate working in a Japanese bank, to be precise.
Goro Yoshida one of Canon’s founders, explained of its origins: “I just disassembled the camera without any specific plan, but simply to take a look at each part. I found there were no special items like diamonds inside the camera. The parts were made from brass, aluminium, iron and rubber. I was surprised that when these inexpensive materials were put together into a camera, it demanded an exorbitant price. This made me angry.”
His first camera was the Kwanon, named after Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. Kwanon in turn became Canon and, in 1947, the company was rebranded accordingly as the Canon Camera Co. By the 1960s, it was beginning to diversify, producing the first 10-key electronic calculator. Its corporate slogan was “Cameras in the right hand, business machines in the left”.
But it was the development of the SLR (single lens reflex) camera followed by the F-1 range, aimed specifically at professional photographers, that propelled Canon to its status as a huge global brand. The F-1 received rave reviews from photographers during the ill-fated 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. The brand began to sponsor major sporting events – including the Montreal Olympics four years later – and Canon remains the camera of choice for photojournalists and sports photographers today.
But when Reid joined the firm in 2004 she quickly discovered this was only one strand of the business: “It was quite a steep learning curve to understand it wasn’t just cameras and photocopiers. There’s the B2B side where, for example, we might work with a university that will outsource everything to us. We will manage all the machines, print the textbooks, archive the exams... Or we might work with a government where we’re providing a 24/7 service. There is also Canon Medical that delivers solutions for cardiology, oncology and neurology. And a lot of the cameras being used to make Netflix movies and documentaries are made by Canon. The scope of work is huge.”
Covid has inevitably put further strain on an already struggling market for cameras. But Canon has seen a significant upturn in the sales of home printing equipment as millions of people have turned to remote working. “Of course, the pandemic has presented a challenge,” Reid says, “but when we look at the numbers for the last quarter, we’ve been more resilient than we thought. We tend to be quite conservative as an organisation and plan for the worst-case scenarios.”
Indeed, when CEO Fujio Mitarai predicted in January 2019 that the worldwide market for cameras could slump by as much as half, he was viewed in some quarters as overly negative. But he has proved prescient. “We are cautiously optimistic for next year,” says Reid. “We’ve just launched a new line-up of cameras and have received a lot of good reviews. But I think sales will pick up once people start travelling again in greater numbers. Until then, there will still be opportunities in emerging markets even though Europe might be a bit flat.”
Reid will play a central role in ensuring Canon emerges from this period in a strong position. She returned to the UK in 2019, having spent the best part of two decades in the Middle East and Africa, to establish an independent internal audit function for the company’s European operation.
“We did do some of that work within the finance umbrella, but they wanted somebody who reports directly to the CEO to examine areas where we could maximise growth, share best practice across Europe and do a bit of troubleshooting. The role will see me becoming more of an ‘eyes and ears’ for the CEO. Markets across Europe are at different levels of maturity and I think it will develop into more of a business consultancy role over the next couple of years, doing more of the added-value work rather than simply being a tick sheet for auditing.”
The CA qualification proved to be Reid’s employment passport, giving her the opportunity to work in Dubai, initially for Sony, then for Canon. “I would recommend a few years of working overseas to anyone if you can,” she says. “It makes you so adaptable and open-minded. I’ve had opportunities in my career where I was asked if I wanted to move away from the finance domain. Would I like to be an MD or a general manager instead? But there was always that voice inside my head saying that you don’t want to cut your ties and leave the finance community.”
And after 16 years, her passion for the job remains as strong as ever. “I never thought I would stay with a company for this long,” she says. “But I’ve been given the bandwidth and trust to do such a variety of tasks and work on different projects. That has helped me to develop my career. And I think that culture also means we’re good at retaining people. I’ve always thought I’m not a typical accountant. Of course, a lot of people say that. But where I get the job satisfaction from Canon has been through an ability to create. It’s about being able to step back and feel that you have made a difference.”