ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Buffeted by foreign competition, then blindsided by a digital revolution, photography icon Eastman Kodak Co. is fighting for survival after a quarter-century of failed efforts to find its focus.
The 131-year-old company that turned picture-taking into a hobby for the masses and became singularly synonymous with capturing memories has tried to bat down sudden talk of bankruptcy. But concern about its grim prospects has hit fever pitch after it enlisted a legal adviser to explore ways to revive its sagging fortunes.
The collapse of such a legendary brand would not only reverberate through American business, but would also have a profound cultural effect on generations worldwide who took their first snapshots with film cameras bearing the unmistakable yellow-and-red K logo.
"With the advent of digital or even cell phone cameras, Kodak wasn't in the game," said photography writer John Larish, who worked for Kodak in the 1980s as a senior market-intelligence analyst. "I see the company now as something we will write about in history books."
Already jittery shareholders were rattled Friday when word leaked out that Kodak has hired Jones Day, a law firm that dispenses advice on bankruptcies and other restructuring options. Its stock, which topped $94 in 1997, skidded to an all-time low of 78 cents a share.
But investor alarm about whether it has the financial wherewithal to complete its turnaround is raising the seemingly inescapable specter of job cuts — and the threat of extinction. Kodak has already sliced its global payroll to 18,800 from a peak of 145,300 in 1988, and its hometown rolls to 7,100 from 60,400 in 1982.
Kodak is still playing catch up in securing a firm foothold in the amorphous realm of electronic media.
"It's shocking how quickly Kodak has gone to no longer being a (familiar) name in nearly every household in Western culture," said Robert Burley, a photography professor at Ryerson University in Toronto.
Weak digital embrace
While Kodak invented the world's first digital camera in 1975, a reluctance to ease its reliance on high-profit film allowed Japanese rivals like Canon and Sony to rush largely unhindered into the fast-emerging digital arena in the late 1990s.
Finally launching a four-year digital makeover in 2004 — the year it got ejected from the 30-stock Dow Jones club — Kodak closed 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, then ran smack into the recession.
After four years of red ink, Kodak has projected crossing back to profitability in 2012 on the strength of deep investments in digital inkjet printers. Its sales have fallen to $7.2 billion.
Mining its patent portfolio has raised nearly $2 billion in licensing fees since 2008, and it is pinning its hopes on a potential $3 billion sale of its 1,100 digital-imaging patents.
The question now is whether those measures will be enough to keep Kodak afloat. The company had $957 million in cash as of June 30, down from $1.6 billion in January.