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Kodak's New CEO To Push Company Into Multimedia Era

GEORGE Fisher, who takes over as chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Eastman Kodak Company on Dec. 1, is moving from the front office of one of the most successful companies in North America - Motorola Inc. - to a venerable but troubled corporation.

Yet, if Mr. Fisher's managerial stint at Kodak is as successful as it was at Motorola, he will quickly rise from the status of a corporate ``star'' to a corporate ``superstar,'' says R. Jackson Blackstock, a financial analyst with First Boston Corporation.

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Under Fisher, the entire corporate culture of Kodak - including the company's traditional emphasis on film paper and chemical photography - is expected to be gradually reoriented in new directions. This is likely to include participation in the multimedia revolution that blends information, images, and electronics, says Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications Inc., a research firm in Bethesda, Md.

For all its financial and corporate problems, Kodak remains one of the best-known companies and brand names in the world, Mr. Arlen says. ``Yellow boxes of film will be with us all for many years to come,'' he says.

But the world is ``gradually'' entering an era of multimedia technologies, Arlen says. Fisher - who once worked for AT&T Bell Laboratories, has a masters degree in engineering, and a doctorate in applied mathematics - sees the ``enormous potential for a company like Kodak'' to become part of the coming multimedia, high-technology world.

WALL Street was clearly stunned by Fisher's decision to take over leadership of the Rochester, NY-based company. An admirer of the type of precision craftsmanship that has made so many Japanese companies successful, Fisher is widely considered to be one of the most innovative corporate executives in the United States. Since he became CEO of Motorola in 1988 and chairman in 1990, the company has become the dominant manufacturer of cellular telephones and paging equipment, and a major player in semiconductor/communications technologies. Motorola, under Fisher, was one of the first winners of the prestigious Baldrige Award for quality.

Known as nonconfrontational and reflective, Fisher will have his work cut out for him; Kodak's corporate climate is considered inbred, patrician, and plodding.

In a press conference last week, Fisher said his first priority would be to put Kodak's ``financial house in order.'' He plans to cut about 10,000 workers out of a global payroll of 130,000.

Fisher's initial remarks about Kodak have been ``somewhat disconcerting,'' says B. Alex Henderson, a financial analyst with Prudential Securities Inc. ``Fisher is keeping a low profile on cost-cutting,'' when Kodak needs a ``much larger'' reduction in the work force, Mr. Henderson says. ``Fisher also indicated that he's going to challenge Fuji [Photo Film Company],'' a Japanese firm that is Kodak's major global competitor. ``But you don't just challenge a firm like Fuji without expecting major retaliation of some type.'' Moreover, Henderson believes that Fisher will find it difficult to walk away from Kodak's core business of chemical film and move into the multimedia revolution.

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Fisher replaces Kay Whitmore, who was ousted by Kodak's board in August, following sluggish financial gains.

Mr. Whitmore was reluctant to prod Kodak into making the deep reductions in employment sought by Wall Street, or moving more rapidly into the multimedia revolution. Kodak's venture into Photo CD, which turns photographs into a digital form, has faltered. Kodak has also watched its consumer market slip away to Fuji and discount companies, who sell film more cheaply.

What pulled Fisher away from a successful company like Motorola to Kodak was probably the challenge, Mr. Blackstock says. At Kodak, Fisher will be able to not only ``fix up'' a company, but ``build it'' into something new: taking one of America's oldest corporate institutions into the electronic future.

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