Kodak bankruptcy hits close to home

The sad news that Kodak has declared bankruptcy bears mention here. Below, is the clock I was given for my 20th anniversary with Eastman Kodak (EK).
Kodak in redding ca
20 years is a long time in the life of a human. I didn’t spend it all as a direct employee of EK. About half that time I was with a company acquired by Kodak, Bell & Howell. I was a Field Service Manager for both company’s operations.

When I began with EK, the sheer scale of the company was truly astonishing. They were so large in Rochester, the company had its own bus system for the thousands who worked there. Laboring in huge brick factory buildings that seemed literally to stretch for miles. Yellow boxes of film sold everywhere for fabulous profit margins. The company was doing amazing science and research.

Yet even then, in the late nineties, you could tell the glory days were long past. This great American company was on an arc, and the signs of its descent to an inevitable end were already plainly visible, a hundred years in the making. Aside from the obvious fact that its main product was as obsolete to most people as a buggy whip, the decay was as much from the top down, as it was from the bottom up.

A century in Rochester had produced a royal court of management, and generations of entwined managers spoke of having Kodak in their blood. From an outsider’s view, the bloodlines were clearly more important than managerial competence. The atmosphere was at times maddening.

But in the end, perhaps the troubling leadership problems made no difference. The company simply ran its course.

Toward the final days of my career there a decade ago, it seemed I was spending more time working on who to lay-off than getting anything constructive done. I had even developed a sort of routine to handing out the news. An acquired skill of which there is nothing good to be said. Make it fast and unannounced. Be aware of their safety, and of your own. It is a formidable thing, to tell a multi-decade employee who is good at what they do, that they are no longer needed. And then they came for me.

It seems a lifetime ago. The day I was “let go,” my boss arranged for me to lay off 3 of my employees first. These were all longtime people, all more senior than me. Good people. All heartbroken. One gentleman unexpectedly brought his wife with him, and I listened as sympathetically as I could as she cried and threatened to sue me. In the back of my mind, I knew my boss had flown in from Chicago, to lay me off later in the day. But right then, these were my people, and they deserved to hear it from me. They deserved my solemn respect, and the right to look me in the eye as I delivered the bad news.

Kodak was a great American company. They created terrific products. They pioneered many progressive ideas, like employee health insurance. And they fostered scientists who provided them with a multitude of useful patents, which is apparently the bankrupt company’s only equity now. I am sad to hear the news of their demise. Saddened, but not surprised.

I wonder what the bankruptcy process will look like for Kodak. Going bankrupt, whether it is an individual who files for bankruptcy or a business that finds that this may their only option, this situation is never an easy one to go through.

I was talking to a friend in another company who filed for Chapter 11 and they said that they were using a Cary bankruptcy attorney that specializes in this area of law. Apparently, they have a shining recommendation for maintaining core assets based on what my friend said. There was some concern that the bankruptcy filers they were using previously were not credible. Yes, fraudulent insolvency is a real concept that preys upon companies filing for bankruptcy and I hope that doesn’t happen to Kodak.

Kodak’s future is uncertain at this point and I can’t say what will happen. America still manufactures many things. A different Kodak may emerge. But the multitude of jobs won’t be there, not like they once were. Automation, computerization, and other “efficiency” factors have worked to create this jobless recovery. Kodak will be missed by all who worked there, and I think our nation will miss Kodak if it goes for good.

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