With rising labour costs, Japanese lens-maker Kenchi Ebisawa had been struggling with his Chinese competitors in the 1990s. He mulled shifting his factory and found some potential investment destinations, including Bangladesh, where labour was available and comparatively cheap.
Chattogram was on Kenchi's shortlist since some Bangladeshi students, who were then doing part-time jobs at his company headquarters, impressed the entrepreneur with their dedication.
The lens-maker along with a representative of Konica – a key customer of Kenchi – visited Chattogram Export Processing Zone (EPZ) in 1990.
"Is there any golf course here," the Japanese asked at his hotel lobby and was told of the Bhatiary Golf Club. He eventually fell in love with the beautiful golf course that offers a view of the Bay of Bengal, and settled on Chattogram for his factory – Sanko Optical Lt
Now the company manufactures all the lenses of Epson for the Asia market. Sanko's other customers are Fujifilm, Rico, Kenko, Olympus and VTS Technology, who import lenses for camera, video camera, fax, photocopier, scanner, projector, sport scope, closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera and medical accessories.
Sanko's investments in Bangladesh have crossed the $40 million-mark so far, according to Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority (Bepza), as the company's export since 2003 hovers around $111 million.
The Chattogram factory manufactures 10 lakh pieces of lens per year, exporting the items to Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and China. However, Sanko's annual capacity is as high as 15 lakh pieces.
Sanko Optical got registered with Bepza in 1990. At the time, five engineers were flown to Japan, where they underwent training for about 14 months.
In June 1992, the company started production at a rented building in Chattogram EPZ with only five engineers and 14 workers. The manufacturer produced only 5,000 lenses in its first month. Later in 1995, the factory was expanded to a new production facility spanning three plots in the EPZ.
Sanko faced a slight hiccup after analogue cameras lost the vibe. But the company's product diversification and a subsequent shift to multidimensional lenses saved Sanko from the bump, and helped it achieve spectacular success later.
Now Sanko employs about 900 workers, including seven engineers.
"In 2004-05, we started focusing on lenses for other instruments. Lenses are now widely used in all types of automated machines," Mostofa Jamal Manik, manager at the lens manufacturer, told The Business Standard.
"We now produce lenses for photocopiers, scanners, CCTV cameras, factory automated machines, faxes, converters, medical instruments, projectors and rifles," he added.
The official said the company imports the raw materials from Malaysia, Thailand, China and Japan.
He said Sanko only makes lenses in Chattogram, while they are assembled along with the parts by other companies. Sanko lenses vary from $0.5 to $2 in price.
Manik said the recent supply shock has also affected lens-making as raw material prices have spiralled. But the prices did not increase accordingly due to the highly competitive market, mostly controlled by China.
Apart from Sanko, CBC Optronics Bangladesh Limited – a Japanese company in Chattogram EPZ – and Young Optics Bangladesh Limited – a Taiwanese company based in Dhaka EPZ – are also exporting lenses.
CBC Optronics mainly sources lenses from Sanko and then assembles them for CCTV cameras and projectors. Young Optics sources lenses from CBC and then does the assembling.