What I learned from a moment with Kodak’s Clarke

It’s not often I get the chance to meet the CEO of a major corporation. Today I met Jeff Clarke, Kodak’s CEO. He sat only a few rows away from me on my connecting flight to Chicago.

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Stories of former Kodak chief Antonio Perez included records of many flights on the corporate jet back and forth across the Atlantic to Spain. Such accounts only deepened Rochester’s animosity toward the former H-P executive, which still remains today. Thus spotting Clarke on an early morning commercial flight stands in stark contrast to Perez’s aura of exclusivity and distance. It made him seem more approachable than Perez who had always been surrounded by a large entourage.

Perhaps that’s why I felt compelled to introduce myself to Mr. Clarke. I regrettably chose to first share my surprise about his flying coach with the “rest of us.” He smiled and responded, “Well, to be fair there weren’t any first-class seats left.”

As we left the gate together we spoke about the company. Clarke is well rehearsed. He referenced a rebounding balance sheet and conveyed a sense of pride around retention of the motion picture film business — one of the few legacy businesses that remain a part of the new Kodak. When I asked Clarke what excited him most about working at Kodak he pointed to the prospects of three emerging businesses groups; each hold the potential to reach one billion in annual revenue. While he omitted specifics, I’m fairly certain his reference probably included the well-publicized opportunities in commercial packaging and sensors for touch screens.

Few surprises.

Perhaps the most interesting part of our brief conversation, however, was his spirited response to my personal enthusiasm and support for Kodak’s current efforts.

“It’s remarkable,” he said. “Everyone I meet in Rochester is behind us. They want Kodak to succeed.”

He wished me well on my trip to Texas and turned left to catch a flight back home to San Francisco, apparently with a full day of meetings ahead.

Some criticize Clarke for his decision to maintain his residence on the West coast instead of moving to Rochester, which remains Kodak’s global headquarters. Sometimes it seems Rochestarians yearn for someone who will accept the proverbial torch from the late George Eastman. Yet, I’m hoping Clarke, whose upstate roots include Ithaca and Geneseo, can help foster a bridge between the fading tradition of Kodak and the excitement from an international epicenter of technology.

While optimistic, Clarke acknowledged, “There’s a lot of work remaining.”

As he continues on his journey, Rochester must not think of Kodak’s future as a return to success. There’s no going back. With any luck, the new Kodak will follow a Clarke-like pathway and emerge from its upstate-centered roots to take on new and unexpected opportunities.

Like Clarke in the airport terminal, let’s put our support behind a Kodak that turns left while others turn right.

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