Monday, May 21, 2012

Kodaktown and the Two Bobs

Kodak Brownie Camera
Our vacation home in Canandaigua, NY is near Rochester, once nicknamed Kodaktown after the erstwhile great company that was its largest employer in a bygone era.  The company, founded by George Eastman, filed for bankruptcy protection since we last visited.  Eastman’s legacy is preserved in his estate on East Avenue, now a museum.  He is credited with democratizing photography with the invention of roll film and the Brownie camera.  The production and sale of small inexpensive cameras supported Kodak’s cash cow – film – for decades.  The company also invented digital photography but ignored its potential.  You know the rest of the story. 

Eastman wasn’t unique among 19th Century entrepreneurs but he was, perhaps, unique in Rochester.  It is estimated that his philanthropic donations exceeded $100 Million.  He founded the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester and was also the prime mover and contributor to the establishment of the dental school there.  The Rochester Institute of Technology has a building named after him in recognition of his donations to that institution as well. 

His legacy is evident in Rochester although most residents take it for granted.  It’s always been a white collar town.  Its well educated workforce gave rise to other companies famous for their intellectual capital, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb. 

Eastman created a paternalistic corporate culture that emphasized the security of its employees.  For nearly a century, Kodak was the employer of choice for the locals.

My brother in law went to work for Kodak right out of school.  He was a lifer.  He took an early retirement package about 20 years ago.  For most of his career, he worked on a Top Secret program that he couldn't talk about.  When the program was declassified last year, we learned that his division made lenses and other apparatuses for the U-2 spy plane.  He is rightfully proud of his work at Kodak and truly bummed out by its bankruptcy filing.

I asked the Two Bobs about the impact of Kodak’s bankruptcy.  They both gave me the same answer:  no impact.  Rochester’s economy has been adjusting to the loss of Big Yellow’s job growth engine for 20 years.  By the time the company went into bankruptcy, it was expected – overdue even. 

Eastman School of Music
Who are the Two Bobs?  Well, one is my niece’s husband.  He is an electrical contractor who grew up here.  Over the last few years, any discussion of the economy started with his head shaking from side to side.  His work was coming from school construction.  Once it ran out, he didn’t know where the work would come from. Now, he knows.  He has moved on to commercial construction.  Xerox and Paychex are among Rochester’s other big companies that are expanding their facilities. 

Bob reiterated his comment of last year.  He doesn’t think that the economy is humming but he believes it’s not as bad as the pundits make it out to be.  In other words, it would be better if everyone wouldn’t talk it down so much. 

The other Bob is my old school chum, Bob Cannan.  His company, Eagle Productivity, is booming.  Once a regional company, he has now gone global.  He specializes in innovative training solutions.  Are you implementing a new business process?  Rolling out globally?  Expecting your Salesforce to embrace some new technology?  Eagle guarantees – that’s right – guarantees 90% adoption of the new program.  Eighteen of the twenty largest pharmaceutical companies are his clients.  His global expansion is driven by their global presence.  He now has over 130 employees and an office in Germany to support rollout in the EU and Russia. 

The economy be damned.  The Eagle is soaring. 

Bob and his team at Eagle have developed expertise in “human factors”.   This is a sometimes overused term when describing the interaction between people and technology.  In the 80’s, we called it “user friendliness”; in the 90’s, it was “usability engineering”.  But, the study of human factors is a much broader field that encompasses psychology, engineering and industrial design.  Human factors describe the cognitive abilities of people interacting with their environment. 

Human factors and its use in training is not a patentable process like Eastman’s invention of roll film in the 1880’s.  So, the key to Eagle’s growth is the passion with which the concept is applied to their process and the excellence of their implementation with their customers. 

Bob and I were in the Navy before it was co-ed.  So, I got a big chuckle when he told me that 70% of his staff is female.  “How’s that going for you?” I wondered aloud.  “Great” came the reply.  Women are very concerned about their community at work, says Bob.  What is the culture?  How do they relate to their co-workers?  Their clients? 

I know it’s a bit sexist to generalize in these matters; however, his experience squares with mine from the days when I was managing big call centers largely populated by women.  So, the management culture and the client engagement are as much driven by human factors as are the products, services and implementation projects. 

I am delighted at my good friend’s success.  I am also pleased to see the positive evolution of Rochester’s community and economy.  While George Eastman fostered a paternalistic culture that was well suited to the industrial revolution and became THE place to work through most of the 20th Century, Bob Cannan and hundreds of other entrepreneurs have created a new economy culture well suited to the 21st. 

I usually close by asking, “WHO WILL LEAD?”  In this case, the question answers itself. 


  1. Not a mention of Seneca, my alma mater. No Bob at Seneca.

  2. I live in Rochester and, yes, we HAD been expecting this. Kodak CEOs are dumb and made all the wrong choices. They should have had some Mensans working there. My grandfather helped found Kodak, investing heavily, and he became VERY rich. He left his shares to his boys. Dad sold it at about $120. Now it's a quarter. Neither am I very surprised at the Facebook stock.

  3. Very well done. I lived in Syracuse for a decade (college + work) and loved the Finger Lakes. I've often worried about Rochester (which means to worry about Kodak) when it became clear that Big Yellow had missed the boat on digital photography. I'm very glad the city itself is, somehow, surviving.