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Kodak, left behind by digital age, files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Kodak's moment has come and gone.

The glory days, when Eastman Kodak Co. ruled the world of film photography, lasted for over a century. Then came a stunning reversal of fortune: cutthroat competition from Japanese firms in the 1980s and a seismic shift to the digital technology it pioneered but couldn't capitalize on. Now comes a wistful worry that this American business icon is edging toward extinction.

Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Thursday, raising the specter that the 132-year-old trailblazer could become the most storied casualty of a digital age.

On its website, Kodak assured customers that the nearly $1 billion in debtor-in-possession financing would be sufficient to pay vendors, suppliers and other business partners in full for goods and services going forward. Web photo storage services will not be affected.

Already a shadow of its former self, cash-poor Kodak will reorganize in bankruptcy court, as it seeks to boost its cash position and stay in business. It hopes to peddle a trove of photo patents and morph into a new-look powerhouse built around printers and ink.

"Kodak played a role in pretty much everyone's life in the 20th century because it was the company we entrusted our most treasured possession to — our memories," said Robert Burley, a photography professor at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Kodak has notched just one profitable year since 2004. At the end of a four-year digital makeover during which it dynamited aged factories, chopped and changed businesses and eliminated tens of thousands of jobs, it closed 2007 on a high note with net income of $676 million. It soon ran smack into the recession — and its momentum reversed.

Kodak's downfall reaches back to the 1980s, when Tokyo-based Fuji, an emerging archrival, began to eat into Kodak's fat profits with novel offerings like single-use film cameras. Beset by excessive caution and strategic stumbles, Kodak was finally forced to cut costs. Its long slide had begun.

Mass layoffs came every few years, as Kodak has sliced its global payroll to 18,800 from a peak of 145,300 in 1988.

Veteran employees who dodged the well-worn ax are not alone in fearing what comes next. Some 25,000 Kodak retirees in this medium-sized city on Lake Ontario's southern shore worry their diminished health coverage could be clawed back further, if not disappear, in bankruptcy court.

It's a far cry from George Eastman's paternalistic heyday.

Founded by Eastman in 1880, Kodak marketed the world's first flexible roll film in 1888 and turned photography into an overnight craze with a $1 Brownie camera in 1900.

Kodak, left behind by digital age, files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy 01/19/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 19, 2012 9:37pm]

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