Posted : 2012-03-18 21:22
Updated : 2012-03-18 21:22

Lessons from Kodak’s decline

By Kim Tae-hyung

Another game-changing company is on the brink of extinction. Kodak, a 133-year-old technology company, filed for bankruptcy protection in the U.S. early this year.

What went wrong at Kodak? The company was the Apple of the 20th century and survived 133 years. It was still considered one of the most innovative companies in the world 20 years ago.

Nearly 145,000 employees in its heyday have fallen to barely one tenth as many last year. The share price has fallen from as high as $94.75 in 1997 to as low as less than 30 cents per share in 2012. The revival now seems a long shot.

Kodak and long-time rival Fujifilm had the very similar industry expertise. Both saw omens of digital doom. Both saw the change coming. But they responded differently.

Kodak was dragging its feet while Fujifilm was adapting quickly. Kodak was looking for new products while Fujifilm was betting on new customers. Kodak focused on imaging and struggled.

Fujifilm has strategically invested in the LCD optical films business and is now a first mover winner with a 100 percent market share.

Kodak moved into pharmaceuticals and failed while Fujifilm entered cosmetics and succeeded. Of course, you could blame bad luck too. Fujifilm pushed the envelope and innovated itself into a new entrepreneur. Kodak dithered.

Adapting to change at the right time is not an easy call. But constantly changing focuses could impose a higher price although the change is long overdue.

Both Kodak and Fujifilm were in for a looming but unforeseeable digital crisis. Kodak’s business strategic focus and vision continued to change with new bosses. Fujifilm also struggled vehemently with internal resistance to the change. But they stayed the course with the consistent vision under new leadership.

Ironically, Fujifilm acted like an American entrepreneur. Kodak acted more like a stereotypical change-resistant Japanese firm. With 20/20 hindsight, it all boils down to leadership and culture that made a difference.

Kodak failed to change and adapt when they needed to act in time. Of course, change doesn’t always bring sweet fruit. Significant pains are unavoidable.

Despite bitter pills, acting too late or too slowly could still bring a disastrous consequence. That’s what Kodak has proved. Would IBM have been still alive if the heavyweight failed to adapt to the change and still sold hardware instead of software and services?

Evidence so far is that any global company could run its course when a lack of a sense of urgency breeds a culture of complacency in its heyday.

The uncertainty we live with is a different kind. The fact of the matter is we are not sure about what we are uncertain of.

When uncertainty turns into a tsunami and comes like the one, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

Even a giant could just sink and disappear in a flash. That’s the kind of uncertainty we live with.

That’s why keeping a sense of urgency for constant change even in one’s heyday should be the name of the game these days.

Without it, no one would know what’s going to happen to global powerhouses such as GE, Apple, Amazon, Samsung, Google, and Facebook tomorrow.

The famous catchy slogan was coined with the introduction of the Kodak camera in 1888.

“You press the button, we do the rest.” More than one hundred years later, in 2012, one of the most blue-chip companies in the history also proved that if you press the button too late, we pull the plug before you do it.

At the end of the day, you don’t have to worry about the rest. It’s too late.
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