Who Killed Cock Kodak?

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Hearing the news of the bankruptcy of Kodak evoked the same sadness of the final scene in Godfather II. As the film draws to a close, a lonely Michael stares 386859_3649_kodak_film_stock_xchng_royalty_free_300into the cold waters of Lake Tahoe beneath the ominous clouds of a darkening winter sky. It was the end. It was the end of success. It was the end of the high life. It was the end of the family.

But then I briefly remember the heyday. I remember when high school classmates would preen proudly into the room as they announced they had just been hired by the Big Yellow Box. Like a clip from yet another gangster movie, Goodfellas, the new employee had the strut of a made man. His life was complete. His career determined. His place in the community cemented forever.

And now it is gone. We knew it was coming. Death for Kodak came not suddenly, but through a series of a thousand cuts. It lay bleeding, terminally ill, for several decades. Despite false hope, every ill-fated effort only brought it closer to demise. Not even the efforts of all the King’s men and all the King’s horses could put clumsy Kodak back together again.

But the destiny of Kodak recalls of a different rhyme. Who Killed Cock Robin honors the death of Robin Hood and the complicity of the entire community. For Kodak, it’s been too easy to blame top management for sacrificing the next for the now at the altar of traditional film sales. The truth, as always, contains uncomfortable complications. The addiction to the immediate cash flow generated by film was shared by an entire community, not just senior executives.

So, who killed Cock Kodak?

In the end, it was the creditors, whose lust for cash knows no bounds and for which Kodak was not able to satisfy.

But, as many suspect, it was also the officers of the company, who managed to mismanage the company and place it in the precarious position of dependency on Other People’s Money by ignoring innovation in fears of cannibalizing the sacred cow of cash.

Of course, we must also blame the directors, because they allowed the officers to place a greater emphasis on a dying – but still cash producing – business line while they simultaneously agreed to sell the young trees that could bear the fruit of the future.

If we must blame the directors, then we must blame the shareholders, upon whose votes the directors needed for their continued involvement in the company. I guess they, too, bought into the idea the cash cow must be protected at all costs.

Lo that cash, which fed tens of thousands of paychecks and, more significantly, tens of thousands of annual bonus payments; thus, implicating the culpability of Kodak’s own employees.

And with those same Kodak bonuses came the annual Kodak Bonus retail sales – a sort of Christmas in March – so local retailers must also share the burden for Kodak’s demise.

If we indict local retailers, we must also indict local businesses in general, who ate from the same trough of Kodak cash, whether from the firm itself or through its employees.

Who else demanded a share of Kodak’s profits? None other than the local (and in some cases national) non-profit universe. Kodak regularly shared its largesse with these groups and anything that threatened the continued giving threatened the wholesome activities of these organizations. They, too, had a hand in killing Cock Kodak.

But if we’re talking tithes, then we must also lay the blame at the foot of government, who regular turned to the cash machine to fuel its ever growing budget through sometimes arbitrary fines, confiscatory taxes and perhaps other less notable means.

And surely, if we must blame government, we must also blamed activists who spawned regulations that caused the fines that ate the cash that came to Kodak (see “Earth Day and Kodak Bashing,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, April 19, 1990).

Notice who we’ve left out. We’ve omitted Fuji Film, Kodak’s long-time Japanese nemesis. We can’t blame them. They’ve only done what any red-blooded American capitalist would have done. They exploited a weakness in their competitor. As the national economy merged into the international economy, all business are subject to the rules of competition. It’s what best benefits the customer, any constituency not mentioned in our list of blame.

Let me leave you with this thought. Rochester wasn’t the only community saddened by Kodak’s bankruptcy filing. More so than the Hostess filing the week before, Kodak’s declaration struck the heart of an entire nation raised on the forever-ness of the “Kodak Moment.”

I wonder, though, if they might also fear the lesson of Kodak hits closer to home than they care to admit. Kodak, you see, does represent the failure of a company. More importantly, and this is what truly disturbs people, it represents the failure of a community. In this sense, many may worry Kodak represents a metaphor for America. An America that refuses to address long-term issues in exchange for the soma of instant gratification may signal the decline of our republic. An America that refuses to wean itself from the financial scourge of public pension plans. An America that would rather sacrifice the space program for high speed rail.

We must all consider this: What can we do right now to prevent the American Moment from becoming nothing more than memories captured on (what used to be) Kodak film?

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