Kodak CEO talks company’s future
Brad Kruchten, a 30-year veteran of Kodak and now its president for graphics, entertainment and commercial films, gave this example of how the company once did everything itself: When he ran its Colorado office years ago, there were cows grazing on its property because the company used them to make gelatin for film production. It also grew its own corn to feed the cows.
"Now we just look at what we know how to do and invest in that," Kruchten said.
One of the company’s biggest projects in development is a cheaper touch screen for smartphones and tablets. Touch screens currently work through the use of a very rare, but transparent, metal called indium that’s laid out in a grid pattern applied to a thin sheet of glass. Kodak wants to use its printing capabilities to lay out super-thin lines of metals like copper and silver, which can be more effective than indium and cheaper to obtain. The new technology could also allow the screens to be flexible and foldable, allowing them to be installed on a host of new objects.
Although the technology is still being developed, a production facility is under construction. Kodak has reached deals with undisclosed electronics makers and expects to begin production of the screens by the end of this year.
Meanwhile, Kodak wants to use the same technology to eventually create smart packaging, which could include sensors that, for instance, tell consumers if a bag of food had been out of the refrigerator too long.
Todd Watkins, who worked for Kodak in the 1980s and now serves as an economics professor at Lehigh University, said that for the new Kodak to survive, it will need to find a way to stand out in a fiercely competitive market where companies such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Xerox Corp. are already entrenched and struggling with problems of their own.
Even as some of Kodak’s technology, like the new touch screens, has potential, Watkins said, it remains to be seen whether the company can transfer that into profits.
"It’s cool, absolutely, but is it a business? That’s the question," Watkins said.
Ari Zoldan, CEO of Quantum Networks Inc. and a technology analyst and entrepreneur, was more skeptical about Kodak’s ability to compete in commercial printing.
He said that while Kodak symbolized the gold standard in the printing industry for many years, it failed to evolve with the times. He said its competitors now have too strong of a hold on the market. But he said Kodak’s research and development capabilities are very strong, so the company could succeed if it can quickly focus itself on just a few niche areas.
"Can they hang their hat on these technologies?" Zoldan asked. "It’s a long shot. By no stretch of the imagination is it a slam dunk."
Perez said he’s confident that Kodak’s post-bankruptcy balance sheet, combined with its new focus and technologies, will set the company up for financial success in the years to come.
As for region’s future, Sandra Parker, president and CEO of the Rochester Business Alliance, said that the city is no longer dependent on Kodak. In the years since the company began cutting jobs, Rochester’s workforce has diversified.
Kodak now employs about 3,500 workers in the Rochester area, just a fraction of 60,000 it had in its heyday of the 1980s. The University of Rochester has replaced Kodak as the area’s top employer, Parker said. The Business Alliance’s top priority is finding a way to fill Kodak’s massive Eastman Business Park. While Kodak still does some manufacturing there, it’s also opened the space up to other companies and is now about two-thirds full with more than 40 tenants.
Meanwhile, Perez is preparing to step down. He’ll give up the CEO job sometime in the next year once a replacement is found. He plans to remain as an adviser.