Friday, 6 January 2012

Kodak: The company of good intentions



When I heard the rumors swirling yesterday that Eastman Kodak was about to declare bankruptcy, it made me very sad.

If Kodak goes, for me, it will be like losing a close relative or cherished friend. I'm sure many photographers and movie producers around the world will feel the same way.

I worked for Kodak Canada for seven years during the tumultuous years when the company was trying to decide what it wanted to be when it grew up.

When most people think of Kodak, they think photography. In fact, the business of Kodak was all over the place. When I worked there, Kodak had a number of bizarre business units. It ran a lucrative pop bottle making plant. It owned Sterling Drugs, the maker of Bayer Aspirin. (In a bit of foreshadow, it's interesting to note that Kodak sold Sterling before people realized that aspirin could be used to prevent heart attacks! What a missed opportunity that was.)

Kodak also sold a slew of office products, including hybrid photocopiers and printers. It made all of the world's motion picture film and developed new film technology that allowed photogs and movie makers to work in impossible weather temperatures.

To me, Kodak was much more than its products. The people who worked for Kodak were stellar. I was a contract worker and I was treated more like family. I got the company discount and I could buy all my drugs -- even Midol -- at the company store. My clients took me out to lunch and on product launch trips. They gave me two weeks worth of free passes to Disneyworld for six.

In short, Kodak made me feel important and special. So in hearing this sad news, I don't think about a photographic giant, I think of a legacy of smart people committed to making the very best products in their field.

A lot of armchair quarterbacks are saying that Kodak ignored digital in favor of film. That it was just a fat cat living off its past glory.

This view is not entirely true.

Digital was very much on the minds of the Kodak team when I worked there in the late 80s and early 90s. They knew the writing was on the wall. So they
crafted a new strategic direction to reposition the company as "the world's leader in producing photographic products". What that meant was continuing to deliver the very best in film products while creating digital products to meet the changing needs of the market place.

The focus was on application, not the products themselves.

Should Kodak have abandoned film in favor of digital? Not when there is still a market for it. Some motion pictures today may be shot digitally, but they are still transferred to film because film is the best way to master the creative product. If you look at the motion pictures made at the turn of the century, Birth of a Nation, Disney cartoons, silent films, they still look as good today as when they were first shot. You can't say that about historic footage shot on videotape. In fact, most of the really important historic footage shot on tape has been lost because of deterioration.

Film continues to be a viable means of capture. It is, still, your mother's mammogram technology.

I don't think film killed Kodak. I think the opposite.

If Kodak had kept its focus -- pardon the pun -- on film, it would still be here today. Instead it went into pop bottle production and photocopiers -- and tried to compete in the digital world, which was not their business.

Kodak was not a photographic company, as one of the engineers pointed out to me. It was a chemical company.

I also think that Kodak would have benefitted from some outside help instead of always promoting from within. Being always true to your school doesn't make good business sense. The suits who ran Kodak were lifers who were too fixated on old school ideas; they were resistant to change and that hurt the business.

It was sort of like, well, if it was good for George Eastman, it is good for us today.

In any case, I hope Kodak emerges from the ashes. I hope it wins its lawsuits against the likes of Apple and sells its patents. But I suspect it will go the way of Nortel.

Like most people, I will remember Kodak as the maker of memories and the company of good intentions.

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