Kodak Near Bankruptcy? How Did Photography Giant Fall?

PHOTO: Boxes of Eastman Kodak Co. film are arranged at a store in Rochester, New York in this Nov. 2, 2011 file photo.
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Twenty years ago, the brightest color in photography was yellow -- the bright yellow of a box of Kodak film. Eastman Kodak was the giant of the picture business, with more than 80 percent of the American film market.

Now, as stories swirl that it will soon declare bankruptcy or be delisted by the New York Stock Exchange, Kodak is fading almost to black. In 1996, its stock reached $80 per share; today, it traded for less than 50 cents.

How could the mighty fall so far? It's not as if Kodak was blind to the coming of digital cameras -- its own engineers are credited with making the first prototype back in 1975. Kodak never could capitalize on it, though; digital photography is now dominated by such companies as Canon, Nikon and Sony -- which, in turn, are having to compete with the increasingly versatile cameras built into smartphones.

"It's monopoly disease," said John Steele Gordon, a well-known business historian and commentator. "Whenever you have a monopoly, you get fat, dumb, lazy and un-innovative."

John Ward, a former Kodak executive who now lectures at the Rochester Institute of Technology's Saunders College of Business, said it's too simple to accuse Kodak of ignoring change. Kodak thrived with a multi-pronged business: It sold cameras, it sold the film to go in them, and then it cleaned up by developing and printing the pictures.

"The digital business was not going to be nearly as profitable as the film business, in any respect," he said. "The film and chemical business was one of the all-time great business models. A lot of the change was going to come whether Kodak aggressively embraced digital business or not."

But Gordon said there are patterns in American business: Companies that lead in one generation of technology struggle to reinvent themselves for the next. He cited the Detroit auto giants, which became fat and bureaucratic -- while more nimble competitors from overseas undercut them. They didn't realize they were in trouble until they were in very deep trouble.

"The view from the top of the pyramid is always satisfactory," said Gordon.

There have been occasional exceptions, he said.

Look at IBM, whose name was synonymous with computing until smaller companies began to make small, affordable personal computers. IBM had a "near death experience," Gordon said, as it reinvented itself in the late 1980s and 1990s.

How did IBM get around its own fat-and-happy bureaucracy? It set up a small lab, far from headquarters, with orders to report only to the president of the company. Today, IBM is a computer services company; it's left the low-margin business of computer manufacturing to others.

In fairness, Kodak has tried several new businesses, including the marketing of digital cameras and the printing of digital pictures. But in the eyes of Wall Street and many consumers, it's been beaten each time.

Kodak may yet manage to reinvent itself. It has sold off its microfilm and image-sensing businesses to buy time, and is concentrating on new fields like inkjet printing. It also owns 1,100 digital imaging patents, which may be worth $3 billion -- though it hasn't found takers yet.

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