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Kay Whitmore, led Kodak amid turmoil

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Kay Whitmore, who steered Eastman Kodak Co. through three painful years before being fired in 1993 for failing to move fast enough to slash the photography company's bloated costs, died at a hospital Monday about a month after being diagnosed with leukemia. He was 72.

"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," said Kodak's chief executive, Dan Carp. "He contributed much, and he will be much missed."

A chemical engineer by training, Mr. Whitmore joined Kodak in 1957 and worked his way up through its film business over the next 25 years. He was elected president in 1983 and succeeded Colby Chandler as chairman and chief executive in June 1990.

His grip on the helm came under intense pressure in April 1993 when Christopher Steffen, hired months earlier from the outside to be chief financial officer, abruptly quit because of apparent disagreements with him over how to improve Kodak's flagging financial performance.

Mr. Whitmore was then ousted in August 1993 by Kodak's board, which complained that he had not acted swiftly enough to lower costs and enhance earnings.

Two weeks later, Kodak moved to eliminate 10,000 jobs, or about 10 percent of its workforce.

Kodak had undergone a series of overhauls since 1983 as it encountered increasingly fierce competition from Japan's Fuji Photo Film Co. The cutbacks have hardly eased with the rapid arrival of digital photography -- Kodak now is in the midst of chopping up to 15,000 jobs, which will trim its payroll to World War II-era levels of around 50,000 by 2007.

Kodak's directors credited Mr. Whitmore with reducing debt, improving cash flow, and streamlining a range of businesses. "However, we believe there is a clear need to move faster and further on operating cost efficiencies and enhanced earnings," they said.

Mr. Whitmore said he had planned to announce a restructuring plan in September 1993 to reverse Kodak's fortunes. In 1991, he had approved early retirement packages that resulted in 8,300 layoffs and, the next year, cut his own salary by 19 percent to $1.15 million.

Mr. Whitmore was replaced by George M. C. Fisher, formerly the boss at Motorola Inc. and the first outsider hired as chief executive in Kodak's history, which dates to 1880.

Fisher disposed of Kodak's health care and chemicals businesses, championed a new era of digital photography, and shook up what was criticized as a stagnant corporate culture that stifled creativity.

A native of Salt Lake City and a lifelong Mormon, Mr. Whitmore traveled to England the year after his dismissal to run a Mormon mission, a nonpaying post.

One big change was not having to worry about the bottom line.

"One of the benefits of being in the [business] sector is you have very clear, specific targets that are easy to understand, and you either make them or you don't make them. Here, doing good is not a measurable target; it's all relative," he said in an interview.

Mr. Whitmore leaves his wife, Yvonne; and two sons and four daughters.

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