When there simply could be no “more,” he shot himself. Where did that leave his company? What legacy of purpose was left in Kodak’s DNA by that act?
Many years later, when the real test came, and analog images gave way to digital ones—did this company still have a star to follow? Had the old true North become unreliable in the transition the company faced?
George Eastman had infused his company with a passion for secrecy. “Patents expire but secrets last,” was his famous phrase. This was both an ethos and a practice. For example, as every secret chemical moved from building to building, and from hand to hand in the manufacturing process, it changed numbers across each threshold, and its name was never used. Thus, Eastman ensured that no one would know the formulae necessary to reconstruct the alchemy that was silver-halide chemistry, a formula which had revolutionized image capture and made Kodak the global leader in film and development technology. What becomes of a corporate culture that does its best work in the dark, in the secret world reverentially referred to as “behind the silver curtain”—literally behind the light locks of the factory doors, bathed only in infra-red?
So, when the tsunami of digital substitutions closed in upon the secretive tendencies of a management team that until 1990 had never even cared to see its market share position versus its competitors, an island of secrets was swamped by an ocean of transparency.
In the end, the final shot that felled mighty Kodak was fired not by Sony, Canon or even Apple, fierce competitors though they were. Rather, Kodak was brought first to dismissal from the Dow Jones, and then, eventually to its knees, not by its competitors, but by its owners, the shareholders.
At the precise moments when clear and long-term thinking was most needed, it was much more attractive to extract one more pound of flesh from today’s business than to risk it on an uncertain tomorrow.
It was a suicide.
Those who desired a “successful” Kodak, measured by the traditional metrics of revenues and share price are perhaps most responsible for the demise of their own prized asset. This was not a company marked by foolish managers, but by foolish owners. Certainly, there were mistakes in management, but they are dwarfed by the colossal error of the regular and shrill insistence by owners, the shareholders and their representatives—the Board of Directors—that the immensely profitable film business be preserved at the expense of an inherently less profitable digital business. At the precise moments when clear and long-term thinking was most needed, it was much more attractive to extract one more pound of flesh from today’s business than to risk it for an uncertain tomorrow.
What if George Eastman had infused his foundling with a clarity of purpose and mission
that was neither lost in the despair of a powerless old age, nor overwhelmed by owners who demanded supernormal profits both today and tomorrow? What if the public identity of this once-loved brand
had the flexibility and range of movement to adapt from one technology to another, infused with a meaning that transcended mere technology substitution and stood for less transient value? What if the DNA of an organization filled to the brim with genius had the resilience and adaptive capacity to embrace both its great and known past alongside a still developing and yet unknowable future? What then, I wonder?
While I am no turn-around expert or distressed asset wizard, I am comfortable in the world of the complex and uncertain, and perhaps that is why I was valuable to Kodak as it faced its end. While I do not freeze in the face of opacity, I am curious and determined enough to attempt to pierce it. It has been more than a decade since Kodak went into bankruptcy protection, and a few more since I last worked with the people there. Looking back, I realize that I have undergone a personal Chapter 11 reorganization along with it. Kodak’s undoing caused me to look again at the picture I held of my life and work. Had I been missing the path through the complexity as much as Kodak had? Yes, I had—because, like Kodak, I didn’t know where to look.
I do now, and I want to share what I see.
Kodak’s bankruptcy isn’t the failure of a company or a management team. It is, instead, an image in time capturing the fundamental failure of a particular way of viewing and doing business that is so familiar to us all. Not only has Kodak had its sad ‘Kodak moment,’ but business as we have known it for well over a century, is in the throes of its revolution. An even more fundamental challenge than mere technology substitution has business in its grasp. This revolution for all businesses elevates purpose and authenticity (demanded by sustainability and social accountability) expressed through brand and company culture. This next era of business that we have entered, recently heralded by the announcement on August 2019 by the Business Roundtable that a corporation exists to satisfy multiple stakeholders, will bring profound changes—and good ones if we embrace them properly—in the personal, corporate, and societal spheres. This embrace of a social as well as economic purpose, by business, we have called Telosity - the intentional pursuit of meaningful purpose (telos) lived out authentically through brand and company culture in view of changing societal and cultural dynamics.
At Telosity Company, we think this transformation of business as a ‘force for good’ is a welcome, refreshing and vital shift. Our sole aim is to help business leaders make it happen fast. Over the coming months, we will share our sense of how this transformation has evolved and is even now redefining the role that any business plays in society. We’ll suggest ways to read the ‘signs’ and how you might respond whether as an employee, consumer, business leader, lender, investor or policymaker. Twenty years after digital technology swamped Kodak, we are taking more photos than ever. Many new forms of business are now emerging, it might be prudent to be one of them!
But despite his persuasively delivered message, I knew it was far too simplistic. He wasn’t there while it all unfolded.
This story plays in the background of both my personal and professional life, but in a way the well-rehearsed yet arms-length speaker was right, for the story of Kodak does not end happily, at least in the memory of those of us who can even remember the company! While it is littered with many individual successes, most of those would later disappoint. As a whole, the Kodak story grounds us not in a theory of success but rather in the inescapable reality of failure. Kodak’s story is instructive precisely because it was such a colossal and very public business failure. A very unpleasantly remarkable ‘Kodak moment’!
George Eastman built an empire of sorts, and, as a ruthless monopolist, had infused the organization with a sense of its destiny. Eastman was a driven man—generous, yes—but determined to build and to acquire and to demolish competitors. He created a commercial juggernaut with an unquenchable zeal for more. From the first day that I read the story of his suicide, I have wondered about the effect this founder (whose life and career reflected an obsession for achievement), had on his company when in 1932 at the age of 77 he put a bullet in his brain because “his work was done” and he felt he no longer had any more to achieve.