Opinion

My Kodak Moment

I glimpsed the US giant's bankrupt fate when it swallowed the workplace I loved.

By Geoff D'Auria, 27 Jan 2012, TheTyee.ca

Kodak head offices

Big enough to fail: Kodak headquarters, Rochester, New York. Photo: DragonFlyEye | Flickr.com / Creative Commons License.

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While the announcement last week of Kodak's filing for bankruptcy protection may have surprised some, there are thousands around the Lower Mainland who no doubt barely raised an eyebrow.

These would be the former employees of a company called Creo.

You might remember Creo. It was the Burnaby- and Richmond-based high-tech darling of those heady dot-com days of the late '90s and early '00s. Unlike the dot-com-ers, though, Creo actually built things. Physical things. Large machines, in fact. Large machines that sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. These machines and the software that went with them revolutionized the commercial printing process and helped build a company of more than 4,000 with a global reach.  

I was one of those 4,000. And I was there in early 2005 when it was announced that Kodak had bought Creo. Here's what I remember.

Shortly after the announcement, the president of Kodak rolled up to the Burnaby offices in a big black limo. He'd just flown in from Rochester on the corporate jet, we'd been told, to welcome us and tell us how we were to be the lynchpin of his remediation plan (Kodak was already in severe decline). I seem to recall bodyguards. I could very well be wrong about that. At the very least, he was surrounded by a posse of suits.  

All eyes were on him as he walked down the aisle of the quiet meeting room where he was to speak. Quiet, that is, until someone in the assembled audience of about 50 started whistling the Death Star theme song. You know, the ominous, brassy soundtrack that plays whenever Darth Vader graces enters a scene.

We laughed. The president, Antonio Perez, didn't.

He likely didn't hear it, of course. He turned out to be quite charming and personable. (But something told me he might still be able to crush my windpipe with a glance.)  

It was a small bit of gallows humour, one that would have been irreverently appropriate for any similar scene in any other company that had just been taken over. But here, at Creo, it felt especially apt, if not prescient.

A (very) brief history of Creo

The word "creo" appears in various languages and stands for, variously, "imagine, create, or believe." Three words that were also the company motto.

That's the kind of place Creo was.

Founders placed an emphasis on innovation, free-thinking, no politics, no bullshit, open information sharing, and as little bureaucracy and empire-building as possible. It rose to success in the late '90s, the golden age of West-Coast high-tech startups, where buzzwords like the oxymoronic "flat hierarchy" and "synergies" whizzed around corporate boardrooms, uttered by people often dressed in shorts or, less often, pajamas (true story).

While many were the companies mouthing the empty rhetoric and trying to trade free pop for never-ending all-nighters, few were actually putting that rhetoric into practice in a way that valued and respected the employee. Creo, for the most part, was one of those few.

Through that idealistic prism came concepts like "unit presidency," wherein you, whoever you are and whatever you're doing, are considered the expert in your own job. And you have the autonomy and decision-making power to go along with that. Your "team leader" -- the word "boss" was uttered rarely, usually in jest -- was there to take advice from you. His or her job was to help define the objective, then remove obstacles and get the Hell out of the way.

Of course, we couldn't resist turning the phrase around and saying that we were "presidents of our own units." Wink wink, nudge nudge. But that was precisely though unintentionally the point. Work didn't have to be a place where you went to be emasculated for simply entering into a simple labour-for-wages agreement.

It was Art of War concepts put into practice -- small, informed semi-autonomous groups that were nimble and responsive to frontline conditions and where few decisions needed to climb the slow ladder of command and await the decisions of out-of-touch generals, who, in all likelihood, were more focused on their personal ambitions.   

As a result, there was little talk of "us" (the people who do the work) and "them" (the people who tell you to do the work). Team leaders at every juncture wanted and expected to be challenged. And whoever could argue the greatest ROI (return on investment) held the company trump card.

That was the theory, anyway.

In later years, when the high-tech lustre faded and our millionaire futures were no longer one good idea away, there was lots of talk of having drunk the Creo-cyan Kool-Aid.

Such talk became more pervasive after the company leaders sold (which included multi-million-dollar buyouts for themselves) to Kodak after what some argued were a series of management missteps that led to a stockholder revolt and a potential hostile takeover. (To be fair, they also negotiated a better than market price for all employee options as part of the deal.)

Regardless, if you have to work (and I do) and you want to be respected and fairly compensated for your abilities (who doesn't?), such an environment felt better than the alternative, which, it turned out, was Kodak.

Geoff's baby-faced Creo card

Back to the Death Star

After Perez gave his address to the troops, Creo-ites in the audience peppered him with challenging questions, as we'd always been encouraged to do. One asked a specific question about strategic directions. Another asked about Kodak's reputation as one of the biggest polluters in North America. Perez handled the questions deftly, at one point turning off the cameras to speak to us directly. It felt intimate. We felt valued. There was even a little hope the Creo way would serve as a model for the notoriously old-fashioned and bureaucratic Kodak.

It didn't last.

Shortly thereafter we learned of a new Kodak-mandated travel policy that hinted at our bureaucratic future. No travel allowed unless Perez approved it himself. We laughed but were not amused. Was the president of one of the largest companies in the world really going to vet everyone's travel plans? What was the opportunity cost and ROI on THAT?

With this and other new policies (Requisitions for office supplies? Centralizing IT support in Rochester? Please turn out the lights before you go to save the company money...), the message was clear. No more nimble. No more imagine, create, or believe. It was like you'd played soccer all your life and suddenly there was a quarterback on the field who stole the ball and was trying to tell you where and how to run.   

Soon divisions were outsourced to Mexico and China. Much research and development moved to Rochester and Israel. (Don't get me started on how a foreign company can come into Canada to purchase and essentially dismantle a research and development company that was incubated with generous tax breaks in order to create jobs here.)

Many good people left. Some started spin-off companies (some of which are creating nuclear havoc in Burnaby). And Creo became a rump of its former self. For me, a career in the world of independent media, my first love, suddenly seemed a more stable career choice.

A colleague and good friend always used to say, "With behaviour like this, it's a wonder capitalism survives."

But it does. And it will, I suppose. Creative destruction is the air it breathes. It's just a shame when the creative parts get taken down by the destructive parts.

As for Kodak's filing for bankruptcy protection? Well, they say it's not the real end, that this is just a way to further restructure and pay down some outstanding debts related, in part, to thousands of layoffs. Still, with behaviour like this, it's a wonder it's survived as long as it has.  [Tyee]

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