The House That George Built Now Bankrupt January 20 2012, 0 Comments

Those of us who began our careers as photographers’ decades ago were raised on Kodak film. Kodak was the company the world overwhelmingly entrusted with their memories. Their film held close to 90 percent of the world market. Kodak employed some 180,000 people worldwide. Yesterday, the once giant fortune 500 company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The less than 16,000 company employees are left to wonder if there is any future with the company and those with pensions are wondering if they will be honored.  Although the company held the very first digital camera patents, they failed to develop any viable digital cameras believing that digital development would cut into their film sales. Beyond their obvious failings to embrace the digital technology they developed back in 1978, yes, 1978, they made fatal mistakes which have now cost them George Eastman’s entire legacy. A while back I commented on the state of Eastman Kodak. Anyone in the photographic industry could have seen this coming as I did more than two decades ago. Here is some of that previous blog:

A high school drop out at the age of 14, George Eastman built an empire. What he took a lifetime to build; others have taken a much shorter time to destroy.

Forced to find a way to support his family after the death of his father, George Eastman began his career as a messenger boy, an office boy and later a junior clerk at the Rochester Savings Bank. He studied accounting. But it was photography that captured Eastman’s interest and he began experimenting with emulsions and formulas for making dry plates. He also sought a way to make many plates in a short amount of time. Eastman wanted to come up with a simpler process for photographic documentation. These experiments were the beginning of the creation of what was once the great Eastman Kodak Company.

A small company which made and sold photographic plates grew to be the most recognizable icon in photography and film in the world. Kodak is a perfect example of how to brand a company. Kodak’s long time slogan, “You press the button. We do the rest.” became synonymous with the Kodak camera, that yellow box of film recognizable at a glance. Eastman is responsible for creating the Eastman School of Music. He developed and implemented a plan to create dental programs and a medical school at the University of Rochester. Strong Memorial Hospital was also a project of Mr. Eastman. He gave millions to MIT and The Rochester Institute of Technology. Eastman gave his employees one third of his personal stock. At one point, Kodak employed conservatively 60,000 in the city of Rochester with another 120,000 worldwide.

So what happened?? In addition to the usual mismanagement of corporate CEO’s and upper management, the idea of what Eastman Kodak was and what it should become was replaced by egocentric notions of what the CEO’s wanted to create. My answer to that has always been, “Then build your own company. Don’t take over someone else's'!” I watched this viable company deteriorate over many CEO’s until piece by piece buildings and manufacturing plants were sold off. Other buildings have simply been demolished.

For some companies, diversification is deadly, not wise. Case in point; Kodak was about film, paper, chemicals, medical film and government satellite observation. Kodak had no place buying a pharmaceutical company and even though advised by their own research teams not to make the purchase, the CEO at the time was bent on “diversifying” and the purchase and subsequent sale of Sterling Pharmaceutical cost Eastman Kodak nearly a billion dollars. This type of irresponsible and foolish decision making has eaten away at the company for decades. Kodak made major errors in marketing which confused consumers and led to the discontinuation of some of the best film and paper ever made. Does anyone out there remember Ectar?? Could anyone tell the difference between the packaging on Tri-X and Tmax??

Waste, personal agenda, lack of innovation, and fools at the helm destroyed the vision, creativity and massive fortune that were George Eastman’s legacy. I am indebted to George Eastman, a man I never met. But a man who gave me an understanding of the principles of light and the best films in the world to capture that light and document the moments of our lives.