The Son of a 'Kodak Man' Remembers the Good Times and Bad

KodakBy Tom Jacobs, The Motley Fool

The tent pole of Rochester, N.Y.'s economy for a hundred years -- Eastman Kodak -- has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Once, it was one of the world's most recognized brands, the Kodak yellow film box gracing shelves at every little roadside kiosk where you might stop to gas up on a family vacation or a finding-yourself college trek.

No longer. The film expired long ago, and now it's like the turntable and vinyl -- something for a micro-niche of specialists and fans of retro technology.

But for me and many others, Kodak's mindshare hasn't faded. It's personal. I was born and raised in Rochester; Kodak fed, clothed, housed, and educated me and my three siblings. Great Yellow Mother, indeed.

I lived the kid's Kodak dream. My dad, a 30-plus-year employee, surprised me with a Brownie (actual flashbulbs!) and then the first Instamatic (drop-in cartridges!). We had a Carousel slide projector and Super 8 movie gear. And all our film was developed at Kodak itself -- in just a couple of days! Can you imagine?

As a kid, I'd call my father at work sometimes, and he'd answer, "This is Jacobs." It sounded so professional, and he looked it, too... not a hair out of place, and always with two new suits a year from Bruce Macfarlane at The National's men's department. His picture was on his business card. Printed on Kodak shiny photo paper, of course.


The New Kid on the Block

The rumbles of change were barely felt at first. In a Rochester suburb, an unknown company called Haloid became Xerox, and the mimeograph was replaced by the Xerox machine.

The two companies seemed to employ the entire town. Around 1970, the newspaper did a two-page spread comparing the "Kodak man" to the "Xerox man" -- and sadly, I do mean "man." Kodak guys might go so far as a white belt and (shoot me now!) white shoes, but Xerox guys could let their hair grow a little. Some didn't even wear suits and ties!

Kodak wasn't officially nervous (even when its copier was late and then lost), but you could feel it. Xerox was the new, unchallenged, fast kid on the block who didn't even ask your name. Out of nowhere, two of my parents' friends retired in their early 40s on their Haloid stock, now zooming as Xerox.

My dad paid no attention. He would say proudly that Kodak spent a higher percentage on research and development than anybody. I knew his entire pitch by heart: With the top-ranked universities in town and down the road, Kodak was the place to work from Buffalo to Albany. If you went to school, had family, or married someone in Rochester, it was the top of the heap. If you had to endure the awful weather, at least you were at Kodak.

They paid well, too, as my dad reminded me when I grew my hair and called Kodak part of "The Establishment." He reminded me who fed, clothed, housed and educated all of us. It didn't take more than a year or two of college for me to get it.

Promises Were Kept... to Us

We were relieved when, despite Fujifilm and losing an antitrust case, Kodak could still provide my dad with a great pension when he retired in the late 1970s. But soon came the retirement offers to avoid layoffs.

My brother-in-law still worked there, and at every offer, my sister tore at her hair: "Why don't you take it? What if there isn't another one?" Eventually he grabbed what turned out to be the last offer. To our amazement, he chose the lump sum instead of a pension. Had he lost every last brain cell? Now, he looks smart.

I worry now about those who didn't grab the lump sum like he did. Pension obligations receive high priority in bankruptcy, but there will probably be some haircut. More jobs to go, too.

Not the Apple of Dad's Eye

My dad died in 1984, so he was spared seeing Kodak's long, slow death. He would think it crazy that Kodak would someday sue a company named for a fruit -- Apple? Who thought up that name? -- for digital imaging patent infringement. Beyond belief!

But then, his beloved company isn't really dead. In Chapter 11, a company deals with creditors and debts, reorganizes, and emerges leaner and usually meaner. Some estimate its patents are worth over $3 billion. The bankruptcy may -- just may -- create an entrepreneurial company. And there are still a lot of smart people up there dressing warmly and enjoying challenges.

We should all watch and think not of the past, but of the future. An old, rusting giant may come out shiny and small. It made investments in employees and their children, and someday again, it just may be a very good investment for us.

Motley Fool senior analyst Tom Jacobs loves his Kodak camera but he owns no stock in Kodak, Xerox or Apple. He is the Advisor for Motley Fool Special Ops, a special situations and opportunistic value service. You can follow him on Twitter @TomJacobsInvest. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple.

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January 28 2012 at 5:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I too enjoyed the legacy of Kodak in the 70's. You shoped at Sibleys', Formans, and Mc Curdy's. After seeing Santa at Sibleys we had lunch at the Manhattan. Kodak left us The U of Rochester and its medical center, The Eastman Dental Center, the Eastman Schoolof Music and many more Museums and schools and institutions funded directly or indirectly from Kodak money. The Strong hospital, The Strong Museum, Hunt Hollow ski resort, and the philharmonic to name a few. Yes, Xerox, B&L and a number of other great companies contributed to the community. Many of them were suppliers of Kodak. The town existed and flourished because of the generousity of George Eastman and other benificieries of Kodak.

Rochester, NY flourishes today because of Kodak and the many entrepeneures who it spun off. It is stable to spite the loss of the film giant. It may as was stated previously rise again as a business that we can all be proud of.

January 24 2012 at 3:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This is what the so called "Electronic Revolution" has done for America and the rest of the world. I always loved coming across that old shoe box full obscure family photos. Now with digital photography you know longer have this luxury. How many photos and memories I have lost to an erased or damaged memory card and a crashed computer harddrive.

January 24 2012 at 12:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am the daughter of a Kodak Woman. I can totally relate to your experiences. Yay George Eastman!

January 23 2012 at 8:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Well I guess finally Paul Simon is going to have his Kodakrome taken away !!

January 23 2012 at 8:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dennis Faulkner

I still find myself thinking that perhaps Kodak could make some good money making obsolete film occasionally - so that people could easily buy film for their favorite camera's at times, and have it reasonably fresh. I was thinking when I went whale watching with a friend recently that I would rather have grabbed my old Instamatic that takes 126 film, with its trusty aftermarket case - and just easily snap good pictures, and develop them later - than to fiddle with my Fuji digital camera. I love my little Fuji, but for something like this, I feel I could get better shots with my old Instamatic, easier.

January 23 2012 at 7:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I was lucky enough to work for Kodak for 39 years. The last several years were a struggle for all of us and the atmosphere declined precipitously during that time before I was laid off in 2004. I worked in what was named CP&P for the first 20 years of my career and, like most, complained about my job. I just didn't realize what others put up with doing their jobs. We all made excellent pay. I started in Jan. 1965 with no skills at $2.08/hr, which was a fortune for an 18 year old back then. I worked hard and eventually became a lead mechanic and then a production supervisor. At that time, Kodak was the "only game in town" and we were not really under any pressure to produce finished work (film) because we really had no competition. Then in the 80's firms like Fuji and Konica started elbowing their way into photo finishing and we started feeling the pressure. The final blow came with digital photography (which, interestingly enough, Kodak pioneered). I have to say that I loved my job, but Kodak really dropped the ball when it came to inovation. The company rested on it's (many) laurels and failed to make the move into the new era. I watched almost helplessly while the new age passed us by. I may be a bit harsh, and I must admit that I was very bitter when I lost my job, but I will always be greatful for all the wonderful years that I spent with the company. I am deeply saddened with the recent news and hope that the reorganization can bring life back into a company which helped pay for my house, put my kids through college and made me feel like I was actually accomplishing something good for al those years.

January 23 2012 at 7:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Growing up in Kodak, I remember the Sunday afternoon matinees of great movies at the theater on Ridge Road. We would go to the drug store and get our candy bars, and head to the movies, tickets provided by Cousin Murph who worked in the Recreation Department. Kodak was the gold standard and come bonus time, it was like Christmas all over again, especially with the ads. Everyone wanted a piece of Kodak bonus money. Couldn't get a dinner reservation after bonus weekend! Fond memories of Mother Kodak!

January 23 2012 at 6:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dave Wentworth

My Mother and her Family grew up in Rochester NY. My Uncle worked for Kodak for years. When the company was expanding on the West Coast, he pack up his Family, and my Mom and moved West. My Uncle worked out of the LA office as did my Mother. She rode the Red Car train from Huntington Beach to LA daily to work. When Disneyland was opened in 1954, my Uncle helped open the Kodak Store at Disneyland. I remember as a child going to the annual Kodak Picnics held at Irvine Park. Fond Memories.

January 23 2012 at 4:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My dad spent 40 years at Bausch & Lomb,neighbors at Hickcock,and Rochester Prods.,but Kodak was the gold standard.First stock my Dad ever bought,and I fought my Rochester roots when I sold it years ago at $22.Have my Dad'sKodak T-35 camera,case,and flash on e-bay right now[complete w flash bulbs]!A sad day for a great company.You didn't mention how in the 50's-70's Kodaks year end bonus' could make or break Rochester's economy.Xerox has managed to survive,so maybe Kodak can reinvent itself as well.

January 23 2012 at 3:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply