A case study in how to kill a great company
It took a long time to completely bugger the company, but 2o years ago, a lot of us knew what was in store.
If not for Kodak, I wouldn’t be working digitally, my art would be stuck in a creative desert, and you wouldn’t be reading this blog. It all started in 1991, and at that same moment, there was the death foretold.
I had reached an impasse; I had had it with The Palladio Company and making albumen prints had lost it’s charm; it could take me and two full time apprentices a month of 16 hour days to turn out a major piece. I was burned out.
Kodak to the rescue! Ray DeMoulin, a corporate V.P. and GM of Kodak’s Professional Imaging division, took a rather significant pile of money and bought 100 fully loaded Mac FX’s, image recorders, film setters,workstations, scanners, and and assortment of digital output devices, networked everything, and opened up The Center for Creative Imaging in Camden Maine.
Here in one congenial space in this old mill town was everything he could find to work digitally. His idea was that Kodak couldn’t count on being a film company forever. And this was the guy who in the 1980’s created T-Max film, and to produce it built the first new black and white film line in 50 years!
He had made the leap and was determined to drag Kodak with him.
He then extended an invitation to a variety of artists, illustrators, and photographers, gathering a motley assortment of creative types in nowhere Maine, far away from the Kodak culture. The deal was he’d put you up in a hotel, feed you, give you 24 hour access to the toys, and technical assistants to guide you. Your obligation was to tell him what it meant to you, and show him what could be done. I was lucky enough to be invited. And that changed my life.
When I got the invitation, I asked Ray what was he thinking? I was enmeshed in 19th century technology. My computer expertise was limited to using the two networked Mac’s that Sura had bought to run Palladio. (Note; in 1987, she designed, and had running, a networked digital asset management system that predated the industry by two decades) I had done some of the business and production database work, but that was it. Ray said that was perfect; welcome to the future, see how it fits.
He didn’t know what the future would look like, but he knew it was based on digital technology, not film. And he needed feedback from all, from the ignorant, to the phobic to the already involved early adopters. He was going to find out, and quickly.
Ray’s little experiment spawned my digital career, and that of many others. The Center was seminal, important, and could have led Kodak to another century of leadership.
Kay Whitmore, the CEO, had been given a mission; cutting costs. This included cutting R & D, which he said wouldn’t stunt Kodak’s ability to generate new products. Yeah. Right smart that one. Good move. He fired Ray. Two years later, the Center was dead and buried. And the rest is history. As is Kodak.
Ok, to be fair, they’re just bankrupt. Only nine fingers and ten toes over the cliff.
But to those of us at the Center who were passionate and grabbing the future with both hands, Kodak’s demise was easy to foresee, and seen as inevitable.