BUSINESS

In Kodak's troubles, a snapshot of an icon's fall

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Rochester was a prosperous shoe, clothing and horticulture hub of 90,000 back in 1880 when George Eastman, engrossed in an arcane art called photography, quit his bank clerk job to perfect a set of home experiments that rapidly transformed a hobby into a mass commodity. In place of heavy glass plates, Eastman devised a flexible cellulose film that he sold preloaded in box cameras. He made up the name Kodak because he liked the letter K - "strong and incisive." Framed in yellow, it became one of the most recognizable brand names on earth.

In 1900, Eastman came out with a $1 Brownie, turning point-and-shoot photography into an overnight craze. By 1927, Kodak held a virtual monopoly of the U.S. photographic industry. And in the 1960s, its easy-load Instamatic 126 became one of most popular cameras ever, practically replacing old box cameras.

Besides making it possible for countless millions to freeze-frame their world and their memories in hand-size prints, Kodak was a corporation extolled for taking care of its own. Going to work for Kodak, known as "taking the life sentence," became a rite of passage for generations.

Eastman's munificence was equally legendary. He pumped his riches into hospitals, universities and parks, creating thousands more jobs. His name pops up around every corner here: the Eastman School of Music, the Eastman Dental Center, Durand-Eastman Park.

Entering the 1980s, Kodak still cornered nearly two-thirds of color-film sales worldwide. But excessive caution in exploiting new markets, such as point-and-shoot 35mm and single-use cameras, was taking its toll. The innovative Japanese were plundering Kodak's fat profit margins. Fuji jumped from obscurity to within a whisker of edging out $16 billion Kodak as No. 1.

Mass layoffs came every few years, testing like never before a cozy relationship of company and community that was perhaps unequaled in the annals of American business.

Bill Hargreaves, a Kodak technician for 28 years, said his father spent his entire career as a machinist at Kodak after World War II, retiring in 1971. "He was there when Kodak was the best place in the world to work," he said.

But Hargreaves opted for early retirement in 1991 just as belt-tightening was making the workplace environment "rougher and rougher each year." He worries now that his continuously clawed-back retirement package might someday vanish.

Kodak, whose sales have fallen to $7.2 billion, has projected crossing back to profitability in 2012 on the strength of deep investments in digital inkjet printers. Mining its patent portfolio has raised nearly $2 billion more in licensing fees since 2008.

In its scramble to return to profitability in 2012 after four years of red ink, Kodak is pinning its hopes on a potential $3 billion sale of its 1,100 digital-imaging patents. The question now is whether those measures will be enough to keep Kodak afloat. The company had $957 million in cash as of June 30, down from $1.6 billion in January.

One telling measure of its demise is "the Kodak trademark doesn't carry the weight it did," Larish said. "The last couple of generations know Sony, even LG and Samsung, but they don't know Kodak. Kodak is not the first name in imaging anymore."

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