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How to Avoid Your Own 'Kodak Moment'

The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises has a memorable exchange between two characters: Bill and the recently bankrupt Mike.

"How did you go bankrupt?" Bill asked.
"Two ways," Mike said. "Gradually and then suddenly."
"What brought it on?"
"Friends," said Mike. "I had a lot of friends. False friends. Then I had creditors, too. Probably had more creditors than anybody in England."

"Gradually, and then suddenly" -- that's the key phrase. And that was the case for Eastman Kodak (EK) (EKDKQ.PK).

The company was once one of America's finest. Its innovation and ingenuity made it the envy of the world.

The bankruptcy of the 131-year old giant came, not in a flash (pun intended), but over time.

Sadly, Eastman Kodak had opportunities to get off one tired horse (film photography) and ride several others. It only seems now that it's in bankruptcy, it has the right strategy and leadership to possibly save it from complete destruction.

Eastman Kodak has agreed to sell its online photo services business to Shutterfly (SFLY) for $23.8 million. Further, Kodak's expected to get between $1 billion to $2 billion (that's quite a spread) from the sale of more than 1,000 digital patents.

There were so many missteps: ignoring the advances of offshore film competitor Fujifilm Holdings (FUJI) of Japan, not competing effectively enough in the new digital world of filmless photography and smartphones, investing in ink-jet printer production, and making fiscal management errors.

So now, under the supervision and strict discipline of a managed bankruptcy, the changes that should have been made years ago are being made.

Here are the lessons learned:

  • Speed and change matter.
  • Transition and transform your business or others will force you to do so.
  • To paraphrase Mark Twain, if you put all your eggs in the one basket -- you'd better keep a close eye on it.
  • Know when to say, "When."
  • Nothing remains the same.
  • Comfort kills.
  • Historical comfort kills slowly, then all at once.
  • Bankruptcy beats bailouts.
  • Risk management, governance and leadership beat everything!

The iconic inventor of the Brownie handheld camera will surely end up much less than it was and much less than what it could have been.

So like Hemingway's Mike, did Kodak have too many false friends, creditors, or what?

Maybe Kodak simply had too many board members and CEOs who either looked the other way, had no idea what was going on, or were incompetent?

Kodak's successful Paul Anka song-linked ad of the '70s seems apropos. The once-venerable company is now simply a memory of our lives. Here is that 1977 Kodak TV commercial classic.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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