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Kodak: The End of an American Moment

Stocks in this article: EK AAPL EMN BBRY

Argento and Borrille recall the 1960s and 1970s when bonuses would hit workers' paychecks. Yearly bonus time in Rochester was a bigger retail occasion than Christmas. Appliance merchants and car dealerships would roll out their biggest sales. Argento remembers local newspaper advertisements would swell, offering the newest deals for washers, dryers and refrigerators. Borrille says vehicles would roll off car lots in lines. In fact, Borrille bought a 1966 Pontiac GTO with his bonus that year.

Employees' hour-long lunches could be spent doing various activities. Kodak's Theatre on the Ridge showed movies every day and timed it so that workers could watch a full movie in three parts across three afternoons. Argento, who was a hall-of-fame fast pitch softball player for Kodak, says his managers would sometimes let him rest during the day before a big company softball game set for the evening.

It's that type of culture that left many employees shocked when rounds of layoffs started in the 1980s and continued through the bankruptcy.

Borrille says the company would hold onto you any way they could. He once wanted to become a welder at Kodak Park, but failed to pass the test to get the position. Instead, they assigned him work in the darkrooms. At one point, his managers turned him over to paint scrap cans -- where they would dispose of scrap film, or unused film -- white. When asked why they'd ask him to paint the cans white, Borrille said: "I guess because I had been working in the darkrooms. I don't know, that's how it was."

By the end of the '80s most of the commercial businesses had been affected by electronic imaging. Layoffs, Fujifilm's rise and the failure of Kodak's newest products to dominate the market were not unnoticed. In a special section of Rochester's Democrat and Chronicle in 1988 that highlighted Kodak's 100-year anniversary, the newspaper reported a meaty feature that questioned the strength of the company's photographic film business. "Photography could move to a back row in Kodak's new picture," the article headline reads.

The story came shortly after Kodak that year had purchased Sterling Drug, a pharmaceutical company, for $5.1 billion, and two years after it had started to produce batteries. Kodak executives were not unfamiliar with making major acquisitions and venturing into products that didn't fit with the photography business. In the late 1970s, Kodak prominently featured in its annual reports accomplishments by its Eastman Chemical (EMN) division that created clothing fabrics and plastic soda bottles.

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