Business
9:01 pm
Thu January 12, 2012

Kodak Retirees Worry Amid Bankruptcy Talk

Originally published on Fri January 13, 2012 8:50 am

Amid recent reports that Kodak could be headed into bankruptcy, financial advisers in Rochester, N.Y., where the company is based, are seeing more and more Kodak retirees who are anxious about their personal financial futures.

Once upon a time, Kodak provided secure, good-paying jobs to tens of thousands of local residents. For about the past 25 years, the company has been shedding local employees — from a high of more than 60,000 in 1982 to about 6,000 today.

About half of Kodak's 38,000 retirees still live here, and John Lawson of Tompkins Financial Advisors says more and more of them are showing up at his office with their financial records — and their memories — in hand. He says this is not just a money matter for most; there are a lot of emotions involved.

"I know of people who go down to where some of the buildings were imploded and stand on the grassy knolls in park and recall their Kodak days," he says.

Lawson says that for the most part, retirees will probably get whatever pension earnings they're entitled to today, even if Kodak declares Chapter 11 tomorrow. For some, he says, that might not be much — but that's because of lackluster investments or poor decision-making in the past. In the 1990s, Kodak offered early retirement incentive programs with big lump-sum payouts — and some people took that money and invested in their lifetime dreams.

"'[They] bought a bowling alley or a restaurant, something like that — because they were in their late 40s or early 50s," Lawson says.

The nation's economy soured, and so did many of those endeavors. Those people have already had to adjust.

That's not to say there won't still be pain for some retirees. Kent Gardner, chief economist for the Center for Governmental Research, points to the group of about 6,000 local retirees who are a little too young for Medicare if Kodak drops retiree health care coverage. They might have to pay for private insurance for a few years, and that could affect the entire community.

"Kodak retirees are going to spend less on other things. It also may — and I think this is a more serious concern — it may persuade them that they really need to think about a different place to live," Gardner says.

But, Lawson points out, most people who never worked for Kodak — and never had retiree health care coverage or many of the other shiny perks once offered by Kodak — and they still manage to make a go of it in Rochester.

"In many ways, Kodak people are much better off than if they had never been Kodak people. But your level of expectations is built up," he says.

And Rochester Mayor Tom Richards says the same thing about this city: It's better off having been a Kodak town. Nearly all of its major educational, cultural and philanthropic institutions were either started by or benefited from Kodak founder George Eastman, his company or his employees.

"Those institutions are still here and are the strength of this town. They're the reason we've gotten through this as well as we have and will continue to get through it," Richards says.

He says local Kodak suppliers have had time to adapt, and it's been years since car dealers and appliance sales reps got excited about big spending sprees on Kodak employee "bonus day."

If Kodak goes bankrupt, Richards says, it will be a symbolic moment but not much more.

"If Kodak goes bankrupt here in the next couple of weeks or whenever they do, I'm going to get up the next morning, and I'm pretty much going to have to do what I did the day before," he says.

And bankruptcy and a restructuring could be what Kodak needs to reinvent itself, he says.

Copyright 2014 WXXI Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit http://www.wxxi.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. We'll be hearing throughout this hour about the shifting American economy. We've always known the economy would be a big factor in the presidential race. In the last week, the focus has sharpened as Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, came under attack for his past work directing a private equity firm. Bain Capital took over other companies and restructured them, creating wealth but also eliminating jobs, in some cases.

GREENE: But first, what happens when a company is slow to adapt to the new global economy? It's something Rochester, New York, knows all too well. Eastman Kodak once provided tens of thousands of Rochester residents with secure, good-paying jobs. Now, Kodak is on the brink of bankruptcy.

Julie Philipp, of member station WXXI, reports people there have been weathering its decline for a long time.

JULIE PHILIPP, BYLINE: Kodak's long, cold winter has lasted about 25 years. That's about how long the company has been shedding local employees - from a high of more than 60,000 in 1982, to about 6,000 today. But it's still tough to find anyone in this town who doesn't have some connection to Kodak.

JOHN LAWSON: Many people met their spouses in the darkroom, or someplace, at Kodak Park.

PHILIPP: About half of Kodak's 38,000 retirees still live here. And John Lawson, of Tompkins Financial Advisors, says more and more of them are showing up at his office with their financial records - and their memories - in hand. He says this is not just a money matter, for most. There are a lot of emotions involved.

LAWSON: I know of people that go down to where some of the buildings were imploded, and stand on the grassy knolls in the parks and recall their Kodak days.

PHILIPP: Lawson says for the most part, retirees will probably get whatever pension earnings they're entitled to today, even if Kodak declares Chapter 11 tomorrow. For some, he says, that might not be much. But that's due to lackluster investments, or poor decision-making in the past.

In the 1990s, Kodak offered early retirement incentive programs with big, lump-sum payouts, and some people took that money and invested in their lifetime dreams.

LAWSON: Bought a bowling alley or a restaurant, or something like that, because they were in their late 40s, early 50s.

PHILIPP: The nation's economy soured, and so did many of those endeavors. Those people have already had to adjust. That's not to say there still won't be pain for some retirees. Kent Gardner is chief economist for the Center for Governmental Research. He points to the group of about 6,000 local retirees who are a little too young for Medicare if Kodak drops retiree health-care coverage. They might have to pay for private insurance for a few years, and that could impact the entire community.

KENT GARDNER: Kodak retirees are going to spend less on other things. It also may - and I think this is maybe a more serious concern - it may persuade them that they really need to think about a different place to live.

PHILIPP: A place where health-insurance costs and taxes are lower. But, Lawson points out, most people who never worked for Kodak, never had retiree health-care coverage or many of the other shiny perks once offered by Kodak. And they still manage to make a go of it in Rochester.

LAWSON: Now, in many ways, people are much better off than if they had never been Kodak people. But your level of expectations is built up.

PHILIPP: And Rochester Mayor Tom Richards says the same thing about this city - it's better off having been a Kodak town. Nearly all of its major educational, cultural and philanthropic institutions were either started by, or benefitted from, Kodak founder George Eastman, his company, or his employees.

MAYOR TOM RICHARDS: Those institutions are still here. They are the strength of this town. They're one of the reasons we've gotten through this as well as we have, and will continue to get through it.

PHILIPP: Richards says local Kodak suppliers have had time to adapt. And it's been years since car dealers and appliance sales reps got excited about big spending sprees on Kodak Employee Bonus Day. He says if Kodak goes bankrupt, it will be a symbolic moment, but not much more.

RICHARDS: If Kodak goes bankrupt here in the next couple of weeks or whenever they do, you know, I'm going to get up the next morning, and I'm pretty much going to have to do what I did the day before.

PHILIPP: Richards says bankruptcy and a restructuring could be what Kodak needs to end its long winter, and start looking for signs of spring.

For NPR News, I'm Julie Philipp. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.