One of the stranger stories to come out of CES this year was the news that Chinese drone maker DJI had acquired a majority stake in Hasselblad, the iconic Swedish camera company. Neither side has officially announced the move yet, but sources familiar with the situation confirmed that the reports filtering out of CES were accurate. That leaves the question of why DJI, which specialized in producing lightweight, low-energy cameras for its drones, would be interested in owning a big piece of Hasselblad, which is best known for its large, heavy, medium format cameras.
Consider what follows as informed speculation based on discussions with several sources familiar with the logic behind the deal. The best analogy for the marriage of DJI and Hasselblad is the acquisition in 2010 of the Swedish car marker Volvo by China’s Geely Motors. At the time Volvo was suffering from declining sales and lack of profits, hampered by its small scale, high production costs, and aging brand.
Geely gave Volvo the financial support it needed to aim high. The company moved to create larger vehicles that would compete directly with the top German brands. Six years later Volvo sales and profit have reached an all-time high, paving the way for a potential IPO.
Hasselblad, like Volvo, is headquartered in Gothenburg, and found itself trapped in recent years by a vicious cycle of limited capital and short-term decisions. It made some small efforts to find its footing in the world of smartphones, but so far has not found much success. DJI, like Geely, believes that company can return to its former glory if given the breathing room to once again make bold, long-terms moves.
Like Geely, DJI is likely to support Hasselblad with financial backing, engineering resources, and manufacturing expertise. The X1-D, which brings the quality of a medium format Hasselblad camera to a more compact unit, is the first fruit of this partnership, and we certainly found it very impressive when we recently tried it out.
What does DJI get in return? It seems unlikely that Hasselblad could get as far as an IPO, but there are certainly plenty of synergies to be found between the old line camera maker and the new-school drone company. DJI is increasingly aiming to capture the very high end of the photography and cinematography market, crafting aircraft and cameras for Hollywood professionals. Hasselblad is a beloved brand among this demographic, and also brings a wealth of experience in optics, design, chip technology, and software.
While it’s known for the large handheld cameras used by iconic artists like William Eggleston and Albert Watson, Hasselblad actually has a history of aerial imaging going back to World War II, when it created units for planes used by the Swedish military. In the 1960s its cameras became the unit of choice for NASA, capturing the first images of humans landing on the Moon (in fact, a couple Hasselblad cameras are still up there). That body of work left behind a repository of knowledge, patents, and expertise that could be leveraged by DJI.
While there is plenty of business logic behind this deal, there may be an emotional component as well. The corporate culture at DJI is built on a commitment to quality, design, and brand which are unusual in China’s consumer electronics industry. It’s this culture that helped make DJI the first Chinese company to emerge as the global leader in a consumer electronics category. And its a passion that relishes the opportunity to preserve and participate in the legacy Hasselblad has built.