From photo films in the 20th century and floppy disks in the 1980s to instax cameras making the rounds at weddings today – most readers have interacted with Fujifilm products at some point. But despite what the company name might suggest, Fujifilm can offer a lot more than camera and photography solutions. We talked with Toshihisa “Toshi” Iida, President and Managing Director, FUJIFILM Europe GmbH, about the diversified business portfolio that includes not only cameras, healthcare technology, and gas membranes – and how the company’s photography past has prepared them to help out with Covid-19 vaccines.
J-BIG: Mr. Iida, what can you tell us about the early days of Fujifilm?
Toshi Iida: The company was founded almost 90 years ago, in 1934. At that time, the Japanese government was very keen on entering the international motion picture market. That was the original purpose of Fujifilm – to produce materials needed for cinema films – so our roots actually lie in the world of movies. Utilizing that experience, we then started expanding the material, coating, and chemical technologies we had built up to new areas: photography, but also medical x-ray films or graphic plates for offset printing. We also dipped our toes into the floppy disk business and produced magnetic tapes for video cassettes. Over time, these business segments overtook the motion picture business and we branched out into ever new avenues. That was true in the beginning days of the company, and it is still true today.
J-BIG: You have been with Fujifilm for 30 years. How did you experience that time and the changing business of Fujifilm?
Toshi Iida: I joined Fujifilm straight after graduating from university in 1991. At that time, photography, medical imaging technology, and industrial offset printing were the three core pillars of our business. My first job was as a member of the International Marketing Division, with a focus on photographic films. This was just around the time we started the development of the instax camera, Fujifilm’s instant camera series, and I had the opportunity to work in global marketing here.
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After that, I was transferred to our UK London Office. I stayed there for 7 years between 1997 and 2005 – an unusually long time for a Japanese expatriate. I was lucky to witness a kind of golden age for Fujifilm’s photographic film business while there. The demand for films peaked in the year 2000, but quickly afterwards, it started declining much more rapidly than probably anybody had expected – 20 to 30 percent year over year. The technology and components for digital systems had been getting better and better over time, and the time was ripe for digital cameras to conquer the market. Within ten years, Fujifilm’s photo film business had plummeted to a mere 10 percent of what it had been in its heyday, and the company was facing the risk of losing a core business.
Luckily, Fujifilm was early in the digital game, as well. We actually were the first Japanese manufacturer to produce a digital camera, as early as 1988. And in 1997, we followed that up with the first megapixel digital camera for the consumer market. Because we were able to provide both technologies, analog and digital, my years in the UK were pretty busy.
In 2005, I returned to Japan, where I have been staying until quite recently – I only returned to Europe a year ago, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. My key assignment during my fifteen years at our global headquarters was digital cameras and the lens business, including some industrial lens applications like broadcasting, cinema, or security lenses. Essentially, everything to do with the optical and camera business domain.
In 2020, I was assigned President and Managing Director for Fujifilm Europe. So today, I do not only care for one business domain and product range, but for up to seven different business segments across Europe. It’s a big change, both business and culture wise, and it’s very interesting. I am also happy to have taken over this new responsibility while being able to work with a diverse, supportive and engaged team throughout Europe.
J-BIG: A lot of people know Fujifilm as a film and camera company – a business that, as you mentioned, has changed quite a lot and is continuing to do so. How is Fujifilm staying ahead of the curve?
Toshi Iida: It has always been our company philosophy not to copy what others are doing, but to go where we think the customer or society is heading. If that means rethinking and transforming our core businesses, so be it. We are not afraid of changing, but are always trying to challenge ourselves and the status quo we are operating in. I think that is the only way to stay truly innovative and future oriented. Don’t get comfortable, but always look at what is coming ahead. We have transformed to stay pioneers, not followers.
Again, the digital camera business is a good example. Around 2010, digital cameras were all the rage – we sold almost one million units every month. Compact digital cameras made up more than 90 percent of our camera business. But our close look at trends, industry and technical developments gave the impression that this was not the final step. And of course, compact digital cameras eventually faced the same fate as analogue film as smartphone cameras continued to improve. So in this market, we decided to jump into the next phase, which was mirrorless cameras.
Another important factor is that from the earliest days of the company in the 1930s, we have sought to diversify our portfolio into different business areas and industries. The medical field, for example, has been an important part of our business strategy almost from the company’s founding days. At first glance, this might seem like a totally different field from that of photography, but actually, it is deeply connected to our technological roots. Our first endeavors into the medical field were x-ray films, which we introduced in 1936 and which were widely used in hospitals until about 20 years ago. Then, just like in the consumer sector, diagnostic imaging shifted from analogue to digital technologies. Fujifilm was the first company to introduce computed radiography into the medical field, which was a revolution at the time.
From there, we started branching out into new areas – intending to create value from innovation, true to Fujifilm fashion. Take endoscopy, for example: It might look very different, but essentially, an endoscope is nothing but a small camera, with a tiny lens and sensors. Today the diagnostics field is more and more embracing artificial intelligence technologies, so we developed our own AI-powered medical platform under the brand REiLI. This is very advanced technology, but even here, you can trace the technology back to photographic image enhancement technologies, or Image Intelligence – the name of our product. Many people don’t know this, but Fujifilm was the first manufacturer to build face recognition software into our digital cameras. It is probably safe to say that everything we do in the medical field connects back to our film and photographic business when it comes down to base technologies.
Since its beginning Fujifilm has researched, learned and transformed. In addition, the Fujifilm Group practices a focused and goal-oriented M&A strategy which recently led to its acquisition of Hitachi’s diagnostic sector, today named Fujifilm Healthcare. This is a strong signal to our customers: We offer comprehensive solutions to medical institutions, on-par with big-market players in Europe like Siemens and Philips. We’re there to compete – in Germany and beyond.
J-BIG: Does that also apply for your life science products like pharmaceuticals, where you recently expanded your business? What is the connection to film technology there?
Toshi Iida: The connection might be less obvious, but it is definitely there. Developing photographic films entails a deep knowledge of materials chemistry – how to manipulate cells to achieve the desired result in a predefined environment.
From the very start, we learned to be very precise with this. If a photographic film fails on your wedding day, all the physical memories of that special day might be lost forever. That spirit of diligence carried over to the life science field. The core chemical know-how and technologies are also very similar, so the transition into this field seemed only natural and fitting. During the last 2,5 years, we have invested more than 3 billion Euros into our biopharmaceutical business in the UK and Denmark. Just this December, a new European life science manufacturing facility was opened in Tilburg. So, today, we are investing heavily into this sector, and we are growing very quickly.
J-BIG: When and how did Fujifilm come to Germany, and how did business develop here?
Toshi Iida: We opened our first Dusseldorf office as early as 1966, so we have been a presence in the German market for more than 50 years. In 1986, we moved into our current office, but we are planning to move to a new space in early 2022. Our new office will cover 10,000 square meters and will also hold a big showroom taking up the entire ground floor. Here, we will not only showcase our products, but also include the global concept of the Fujifilm Open Innovation Hub where we can work on future technologies together with potential partners, offering space for collaboration. It’s a big upgrade, which reflects the way our company has developed locally over the years. We started out with only a small number of employees – today, Fujifilm has around 1,000 employees in Germany, and about 6,000 in Europe overall. Our headquarter is and will be located in the Dusseldorf area and we do have a few smaller entities throughout Germany: for example a photo service software provider in Bonn, an endoscopy treatment manufacturer near Nurnberg, and a printing factory in Willich. For these group companies, we follow a one brand strategy – with only very few exceptions, all the companies in our group are also branded under the Fujifilm name.
Fujifilm is a pretty diversified company, but as you mentioned, the majority of Germans still know us only as a photographic company. My key mission is to raise awareness in Germany that Fujifilm is a company covering many business fields. That’s why about two years ago, we started our “NEVER STOP” campaign, through which we communicate that Fujifilm has become a multi-technology company and express what the company as a whole can do for society. The campaign also expresses our corporate culture very well, which is driven by a desire to keep innovating and blaze new trails – we NEVER STOP in the face of challenges, so to speak.
Today, there is a focus on the healthcare sector in Europe. There are a lot of historically strong competitors in this field, and we want to push the Fujifilm brand to raise its awareness among the healthcare and biopharmaceutical industry, of course, but also among the general public and local governments. Everything we do in the life sciences space is largely as a service provider, be that as a Contract Manufacturer Organisation or be that us developing a cell culture for a range of different applications. For example, we provide the antigen component for some Covid-19 vaccines. In this case, we act as a partner to the pharmaceutical industry and supply a key component. We grow a pharmaceutical substance from milliliters to thousands of liters.
J-BIG: Are there any other business areas that you think are particularly important in the German market?
Toshi Iida: Besides the medical field and life sciences, another segment that deserves recognition is the printing business – traditionally an important industry in Germany. Historically, we are one of the largest suppliers for offset printing system solutions for the commercial printing industry – newspapers, magazines, advertisements, and so forth.
Today, we are seeing some new technologies coming in from Fujifilm Business Innovation, formerly known as the Fuji Xerox corporation. The company started in the 1960s as a joint venture between Fujifilm and Xerox, with each company holding 50 percent of the shares. This joint venture ended in March 2021, when we took over 100 percent of the shares, so the company is now fully owned by Fujifilm. That gave us the freedom to enter the European market – previously, Fuji Xerox had limited its business to Japan and Asia. As a one-stop printing solution provider, we see a lot of great opportunities in this segment for Fujifilm to build up a bigger presence in Europe. In the consumer market, for example, we still see a strong demand for photographic color paper, as you find it in photobooks and the like. On the commercial side of things, we have introduced print-on-demand devices. Newspapers and magazines have had to shift from large-scale batch production to much smaller volumes. Fujifilm Business Innovation already has solutions in place for this, but up to recently, they weren’t available for European audiences. That is now changing.
Of course, there are also strong competitors in the market already, but we believe that we can offer some products and solutions that are rare in the market. For example, our printing solutions are toner-based instead of using inkjet technology. That gives is a lot more freedom to recreate colors like gold or pink, which are very difficult to replicate with a CMYK system.
Another area that we are pushing in Europe is data storage. A few months ago, we launched the LTO9 storage tape, which can hold up to 18 terabytes of data, 45 terabytes when data is compressed – a long way from the 1.44-megabyte floppy disks we started with. Tape like the LTO9 needs less electricity than comparable data storage systems and also offers the chance to save quite some CO2 throughout its lifecycle. Additionally, tape can store data for up to 50 years and offers high security standards due to its high level of data integrity. Of the 10,000 biggest European companies, 97% use tape – among them banks, the automotive industry, R&D centers and registry offices. Therefore, there is a reasonably good chance that your marriage certificate or your university results might be stored on one of our tapes!
J-BIG: Are there any business areas that are big in Japan but haven’t made it to the German market?
Toshi Iida: One area is cosmetics – this is very successful in Japan, and my wife, for example, loves it. But it is very challenging to enter this product range into the European market. People don’t associate Fujifilm with skin creams, and it is difficult to overcome that.
For now at least, I see a lot more potential for some of our products in the medical field that are not yet available in Europe, specifically equipment for CT, MRI, and ultrasound scans. We have an opportunity to establish ourselves as a one-stop solution provider here, which I find very exciting. I am optimistic that this product range will become very successful in Germany in the future, as well.
J-BIG: Japanese companies are known for their long-term thinking. If you had to formulate a 2050 vision for Fujifilm in Europe, what would it be?
Toshi Iida: In 2017 Fujifilm has announced its “Sustainable Value Plan 2030”. Here, we identified four social needs that we want to focus on. The first is health – we already touched on this in some depth. The second is enriching people’s lives. Most of our consumer products, like photography, fall into this category. The third important aspect is energy and the environment: How can Fujifilm contribute to a more sustainable world? One example of how we are approaching this is a gas separation membrane we developed and produce in the Netherlands. The product effectively removes CO2 and other harmful components from natural gases, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. The production site itself already runs 100 precent on wind energy today. Fourth, there is the working environment, which is where solutions from Fujifilm Business Innovation will play a big role. By 2050, I am sure we will have introduced many new and innovative solutions that promote all four of these central areas: health, life, work, and the environment.
J-BIG: Looking more on the structural side of things, how is Fujifilm organized in Europe and Germany? What is the relationship with the Japanese headquarter like?
Toshi Iida: Aside from the global headquarter in Tokyo, we also have regional headquarters for each geographic zone. I am responsible for the European headquarters, which oversees all 50 plus entities in Europe. Within that region, Germany accounts for around 20 percent of the overall revenue.
Communication both with the markets and the corporate headquarter is very tight knit. In my view, the key to success in any business is closely connecting and correlating R&D, manufacturing, and the market situation. On the R&D side, Japan is of course the leading entity, but we do have regional research facilities, as well. In Europe, for example, we have an R&D site in the Netherlands that conducts research for certain projects, like the gas separation membranes I mentioned.
The same goes for manufacturing: We do have large-scale production in Europe, with the Netherland plant being the oldest. Here, silver halide paper is produced, as well as offset printing plates and membranes. As mentioned before, recently, we have also made some major investments in the life science and pharmaceutical field, expanding the production capacity of factories in the UK, Denmark and the Netherlands. For these business areas, Europe is a key region, not just in terms of market potential, but also when it comes to manufacturing.
In terms of understanding and communicating market trends and demands, the local branches of course play an absolutely vital role. Sales and marketing are organized locally, and we continuously communicate customer needs and feedback to our global headquarters.
J-BIG: How do you ensure that communication between continents and cultures goes smoothly? Do you experience any issues with that here in Germany?
Toshi Iida: Fortunately, we can look back on a long history in the German market, so I think intercultural communication has long been practiced and a lot of the issues that might have come up in the beginning have disappeared by now. We make sure that the people in management positions at the global headquarters have spent some time in Europe and other regions, so they are more attune to regional differences and already know the cultures and markets first-hand. Both our former CEO, President and some current board members at the Head Office previously held my position. I think the fact that they have a lot of experience with business and people in Europe and especially Germany has ensured that there aren’t any real problems when it comes to intercultural communication.
On the flipside, many of our European staff regularly travel to Japan for business, so they have some understanding of Japanese business and culture, as well. It is still very rare for European employees to stay in Japan for extended periods of time. But our current CEO Mr. Teiichi Goto has expressed that we want to focus more on young, talented people with international experience – so maybe sending colleagues from Europe to Japan could happen more often in the future.
Regardless of the location, however, the Fujifilm corporate culture is the same anywhere. We value open, fair, and clear communication. If problems occur, we address them together. I think that also helps keep misunderstanding at bay, cultural or otherwise.
J-BIG: Has the Covid pandemic affected the international collaboration inside Fujifilm?
Toshi Iida: I arrived in Germany in the midst of the pandemic, so for a long time, I couldn’t go to the office and meet my colleagues in person. But we had online meetings more often than before, both inside the German teams and beyond. Online meetings were a great way to get to know people quickly, and I think it will stick around as a new way of communicating. And I have to say that the European Fujifilm staff handled the situation very well and proactively sought smart and creative new ways of working. I really appreciate that. But of course, there is also something missing compared to face-to-face meetings, so I was very happy when I could start travelling a little bit and meet some of those faces in real life. It was good to experience a certain level of normality through travelling. But now that the numbers of Covid infections are rising again, we will need to stay vigilant. Having an eye on the needs of the company AND keeping our workforce safe at the same time is a must for Fujifilm.
J-BIG: Is there something in particular you miss about traveling to Japan?
Toshi Iida: I came to Europe for two reasons – new job-related challenges and also private chances to grow. In my private life, I am very happy with the new experiences that I can make in Germany – be it food, culture or people. Whenever I feel like I need something connected to home, I’m lucky enough to still have access to high-quality sake and Japanese cuisine here in Dusseldorf. My own Japanese cooking skills are also becoming better. I miss my daughter who works in Japan, but I have to say, me and my wife are really enjoying our time here. I can’t say that I miss that much. Especially now that Japanese restaurants are open again!