(July 28, 2004) — As a top executive at Eastman Kodak Co., Kay R. Whitmore could have easily spent every minute dealing with the critical issues facing his company.
He was surrounded by them: Intensifying competition; advances in imaging technology that threatened Kodak's cash-cow film business; accidental leakages of hazardous chemicals into neighborhoods around Kodak Park.
Yet Mr. Whitmore, who died Monday evening at Rochester General Hospital at the age of 72 from complications of leukemia, refused to allow the weight of business to isolate him from the community.
The former chairman and chief executive officer of Rochester's largest employer was a staunch advocate of involving businesses in public education, an influential leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and an avid Boy Scout.
“Here is a man, who, in my opinion, was one of the greatest civic leaders ever in this community,” said Rochester Mayor William A. Johnson Jr. “He was criticized for dealing with the city's issues. But he did not shirk his duties to Kodak and he didn't shirk his duties to the community.”
Described as a man of “incomparable integrity,” Mr. Whitmore spent most of his career at Kodak, a period spanning 36 years. His time as a senior executive was marked by tumultuous events that showed the first signs of weakness in Kodak's dominance of the photo industry.
During his 1990 to 1993 tenure as CEO — a period that includes a recession — Kodak's revenue stagnated at about $12.5 billion, while profits fluctuated wildly because of restructuring plans. The company's global work force fell from 96,700 in 1991 to 91,800 in 1993.
At the same time, Kodak pursued some investments that are shaping the company today.
Mr. Whitmore was a strong supporter of single-use film cameras, which turned into one of the most successful new products in the history of photography, with more than a billion sold. And Kodak also introduced the first commercially available digital camera and launched the Photo CD, which presaged the storage of pictures on CD-ROM.
His tenure was also marked by controversy. Mr. Whitmore was assailed in an annual meeting for failing to enrich investors, putting Kodak on the cutting edge of a new shareholder advocate movement. He hired a tough new chief financial officer, Christopher Steffen, only to see him depart after 11 weeks. Mr. Whitmore was ultimately dismissed by the board in 1993 for allegedly failing to cut costs quickly enough.
Through it all, Mr. Whitmore retained a positive outlook and uncompromising integrity, say former colleagues and family members. He had a keen intellect and a deep love for the company, friends and family say.
“You search for right words at a time like this. One of the first is respect. I have always had enormous respect for Kay, especially for his forthright nature,” said former CEO Colby Chandler, who pulled Mr. Whitmore from the ranks to serve as his chief lieutenant in the 1980s. “There was no hidden agenda.”
His integrity and love for Kodak was evident in how he dealt with dismissal. Mr. Whitmore agreed to serve as CEO until a successor was named and encouraged employees to keep their chins up. “I will do everything I can to ensure a smooth transition,” he wrote to employees in August 1993.
Mr. Whitmore didn't take the decision personally, his family said. He expressed regret that he didn't get to see Kodak through its rocky times.
“He never, ever said one bad word about Kodak,” said his daughter, Michelle Clark. “Never to his dying day. I thought that was impressive. He was so hurt by this, but he just couldn't.”
The dismissal came when Mr. Whitmore took a stand against what he saw as board interference, son-in-law Cary Jensen said. Some on Kodak's board wanted Mr. Whitmore to escalate layoffs.
Mr. Whitmore told the board it was his responsibility to decide those matters. “He said, ‘That's not your job. If I'm not doing the job you want, then you need to find another CEO.'”
The board announced his dismissal on Aug. 5, 1993. He was replaced by George Fisher, then CEO of Motorola Inc., the first outsider to run Kodak.
Mr. Whitmore was a pioneer in involving business in reforming public education. In the 1980s, he helped develop Rochester Brainpower, a coalition of area businesses aimed at aiding city schools. He was a chairman of the National Action Council of Minority Engineers, an organization that helps minority students become engineers.
In May 1989, President George H.W. Bush accepted Mr. Whitmore's invitation to visit Rochester's Wilson Magnet School — an event that put the city's reform efforts on the national map, said Peter McWalters, former city school superintendent.
“I am familiar with corporate leaders in 50 states and I've never met anyone like him,” said McWalters, now commissioner of the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Mr. Whitmore's passion for youth translated into his involvement in the Mormon Church.
He served as president of the Rochester-Palmyra stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a position similar to bishop in Catholicism, from 1985 to 1988. He helped increase local church membership to more than 6,000, and encouraged young Mormons to serve asmissionaries.
Between 1994 and 1997, he was mission president for southern England. After returning to Rochester, he was branch president of the church's young single adults organization.
His missionary work continued right up to the time of his illness. He and his wife Yvonne just completed an 18-month assignment in the San Diego area.
David Cook, president of the Rochester-Palmyra stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a longtime family friend, described Mr. Whitmore as a “giant” in the church.
“The passing of Kay Whitmore is sad news for all Kodak people and the community of Rochester to which he had such a strong dedication,” Kodak Chairman and CEO Daniel A. Carp said in a statement.
Calling hours will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. and from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Anthony Funeral Chapel, 2305 Monroe Ave., Brighton.
The funeral service will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Chapel at 460 Kreag Road, Perinton.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by six children: Rick Whitmore of Raleigh, N.C.; Kimberly Christensen of Vienna, Va.; Michelle Clark of Mendon; Cynthia Lund of McLean, Va.; Suzanne Jensen of Brighton; and Scott Whitmore of Franklin, Mass.; 30 grandchildren and two sisters, Geri Hooker of Midvale, Utah, and Connie Smith of Sandy, Utah.
Includes reporting by staff writers Michael Wentzel, Alan Morrell and Jeffrey Blackwell.