5 things I learned from Kodak.

I am off to Kodak Rochester in June and I expect to see little will have changed. The Chapter 11 protection that they have filed is a move that allows a company in trouble to put it's debt on hold whilst it restructures. Kodak has many profitable arms, and some unprofitable, but it's biggest problem is it's structure. 130 years builds up quite a tangle! So what went wrong…?

A big profitable company will do two things to improve itself:

Firstly it will invest in research and development. Kodak invented a great deal of what we understand as photography, thousands of imaging patents are held in their name. Their most  astounding invention was digital photography, and it has been the main cause of their drop in revenue.  Like a greek tragedy, they invented their own downfall. But what does a forward thinking company do? They made the future.

Secondly it will invest in it's staff. Kodak had some of the best employment conditions throughout it's history. Kodak practically built the city of Rochester for it's people. Employment terms and conditions can only remain stable or improve, in a first world country they almost never drop.

This is where they find themselves, in a mansion living like paupers, unable to fix it up without asking for help.

In the light of Kodak's chapter 11 protection in the USA, I began to ponder our 76 year relationship with the yellow behemoth and the influence they have had on us. Here are 5 things Kodak taught us:

1. Customer service.

Kodak had many branches of their business, and sometimes a client would find themselves between the different arms. For example, as well as Kodak professional film, we also stocked Kodak amateur films. In the 1990s we had to buy these from a different part of Kodak, and although our overall spend with Kodak was huge, the spend with "amateur" branch was low and attracted less discount than the local minilab would get! We also had to deal with different sales and ordering people. This was madness.

Each client should be treated with consistency, regardless of what they are buying from you. They must have 'a' point of contact for all of your products and their potential needs to be viewed as long term. Treat everyone as a 20 year customer, do it right and they will become one.

2. Always move forward.

Whilst Kodak have struggled to make digital imaging profitable, they still went forward. If you find yourself heading in a new direction, and it is one that really interests you, evaluate the market, see if it is a unique offering, then go for it. To attract good customers you need to show your passion, doing the same thing year in and out will leave you jaded. Take a new direction, throw yourself into it.

You would think the manufacturing of film would be one of those items Kodak wants to abandon, but consider these two points. The motion picture industry are still heavily film based, if movies are not shot on film, many cinemas still rely on film distribution due to the high cost of digital projection. Secondly, Kodak's film coating plants (one in Denver Colorado USA and one in Birmingham UK) are state-of-the-art utilising 'just in time' manufacturing. They can switch to coat any emulsion inside a day. Providing there is a market, Kodak can produce film more efficiently than anyone else.

3. Listen.

One of the gems offers by Kodak is the DP2 production software we run. Each year Kodak holds a conference in Rochester for the users of DP2. What sets Kodak apart from any other software provider is how it sits attendees together with software engineers to plan the development of DP2. The actual coders sit up front and listen. No PR barrier, not spin, just ask and answer.

4. Make the hard decisions early.

If you feel you are going down the wrong path, back track or change direction as soon as you can. Don't leave it long to make the difficult calls, it may become too late. Kodak needed to act more decisively earlier. But thanks to America's supportive bankruptcy laws, they have a last chance to make the changes.

5. Partnerships and relationships.

In our industry, we are essentially custom manufacturing each item, as each print is different. Suppliers of custom one-off products cannot be expected to get it right first time every time. The relationship is more important. A long association will ensure both parties get what they want as often as possible as they grow to know each other better. Your relationship with your supplier must be seen as a partnership.

Our 76 years with Kodak has been incredibly rewarding, we look forward to the future and learning more from this impressive company.

Paul Atkins.