One of the best days on the job for Jim Continenza took place about 18 months ago when he was talking with some workers on the shop floor at Eastman Kodak Co.
The employees – many of whom were close in age to the now 60-year-old Continenza – told him they would be retiring in the next few years and felt it was important they passed their industry knowledge – collected over the course of their careers – on to the next generation of workers there.
“It was the first time I heard people at Kodak talk like that; they saw a future,” Continenza says. “It was a breakthrough.”
Kodak dominated the photographic film market for most of the 20th century and served as a major employer in Rochester, as well as a leading customer for many other companies in the region.
However, new technologies – and the failure of company leaders to adapt to such changes – led to the start of the company’s downfall, which culminated in Kodak filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2012.
Continenza was named chair of Kodak’s board of directors in 2013, the year the business emerged from bankruptcy.
Known as a turnaround specialist with commercial printer roots, he was brought on board because of his experience guiding dozens of technology companies through transformations.
Continenza was named executive chairman in early 2019 and assumed the role of CEO in July 2020, succeeding Jeffrey Clark, who stepped down after nearly five years in the role.
Continenza — who is listed on the RBJ Power List for 2022 — was straightforward when talking recently about where things stood when he took the helm and what his role was to be moving forward.
“We had to change direction, or we weren’t going to make it,” he says, adding that the CEO appointment meant Continenza had an obligation to Kodak’s shareholders and investors. “It’s a responsibility I take very seriously.”
Despite the challenges, Continenza saw a path for Kodak and was determined not to give up.
“I have a lot of love and affection for this company,” he says.
Continenza grew up in Saint Paul, Minn. His father was an immigrant and blue-collar worker and the younger Continenza knew what it was like being part of a family living, at times, from paycheck to paycheck.
The large Italian family was tightknit and Continenza recalls spending a lot of time with his extended family growing up.
He studied business at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and graduated in 1984. While there, he met his future wife, Sandi.
Over the course of his career, Continenza has held several leadership roles.
He has served as the chair and CEO of Vivial Inc., a privately held marketing technology and communications company. He has also held leadership roles at STi Prepaid LLC, a telecommunications company; Teligent Inc., a communications services company and Lucent Technologies Product Finance, a global leader in telecom equipment and AT&T.
When he took the top spot at Kodak, Continenza went right to work, fixing the balance sheet, focusing on the company’s core strengths and establishing a customer-first approach.
The work would be a tall order at any time but was especially challenging during a global pandemic and a period of inflationary challenges.
Continenza took it in stride.
“The worse things are, the better I act,” he says.
He also brought in new managers, noting roughly 80 percent of the leadership team has been changed since he came on board and many of whom have worked with Continenza during past turnarounds, knew the extensive work that needed to be done and were up for the challenge.
Continenza is confident in the leadership teams he has in place at Kodak locations to oversee day-to-day operations, noting he is focused on the future of the company.
“This company lost its courage along the way and took on a victim mentality,” he says. “Now we have to be warriors.”
Continenza is rarely in his corporate office and spends most of his time at Kodak’s numerous sites around the globe, as well as visiting customers and attending trade shows, working to gain market share.
“At the executive level you work around the clock” he says.
He describes himself as direct and transparent.
“I don’t hide anything; if it’s good or bad, I let people know,” he says.
One of the biggest issues he faced initially was that the company had tried to become a consumer-products company; but Kodak is ultimately a B2B company, focused on advanced materials and chemicals, Continenza explains.
“We need to get back to our roots; back to fundamentals,” he says.
Among his early goals was to bring the Eastman Business Park back to life.
There has been a rebirth of late at the 1,200-acre industrial park, where more than 6,000 people work at the 114 companies who now operate there. That includes Kodak, which is growing its presence.
The company has started construction at the site on a $20 million lab and manufacturing facility to produce reagents for health care applications.
It is one of several ways the manufacturing company is looking to use its long-standing technological expertise to develop new areas of the business.
Continenza announced at the end of 2021 four growth initiatives in Kodak’s advanced materials and chemicals segment.
All four initiatives are in their infancies and in various stages of development, he says, adding they would all have operations in the local business park.
Among them is the reagents lab and manufacturing facility at EBP.
Additional initiatives in the advanced materials and chemicals business focus on energy battery storage material manufacturing, light blocking technology and transparent antennas.
The new initiatives are designed to grow over the next several years and beyond that, with the goal of taking the technologies to adjacent markets, he adds.
A renewed interest in film has also helped the business of late with Kodak adding workers, and shifts, to meet the demand.
“We might not get back to what we used to be, and we don’t have to,” Continenza says. “We will get to where we’re supposed to be and continue to grow.”
Under Continenza’s leadership, the business continues to invest in product innovation and back-end systems that allow Kodak to grow and scale more quickly.
There is also a focus on sustainability, especially in Kodak’s largest market: commercial print. The segment is comprised of prepress solutions, which includes Kodak’s digital offset plate offerings and computer-to-plate imaging solutions.
A third focus is on taking share from competitors by providing industry-leading solutions and service.
The efforts are helping create jobs. Kodak has added almost 330 new hires in Rochester this year and now has nearly 90 job openings. The company employs some 1,400 people locally.
Continenza says his role is to support the company’s employees and create value for the firm, which are not mutually exclusive.
“This company deserves to get its (good) reputation back,” Continenza says. “It has made so many contributions and to ignore those would be wrong.”
The balance sheet shows the model appears to be working.
In early November, Kodak released its third-quarter financial results, including its sixth consecutive quarter of revenue growth and a small profit.
George Conboy, chair of Brighton Securities, says the management team in place at Kodak is the best he has seen there in the past 40 years.
He points out that Kodak is a different company than it was in its heyday when the business had a near monopoly on the market and was so profitable it could afford to let some things slide.
Since the bankruptcy filing, the business has become lean and Continenza has done a lot of hard work righting the ship, or, as Conboy calls it: “fixing the motor before taking the car out on the road.”
“The car is nosing out of the garage and getting ready to go places,” Conboy adds.
Conboy notes that over the last few quarterly reports, Kodak management — led by Continenza — has arrested a decline in revenue, fixed the balance sheet and had modest and increasing profits.
“That is a testament to the hard work and competence this management team has brought to the company,” Conboy says.
Terry Taber, Kodak’s senior vice president and chief technology officer, has been at Kodak for more than four decades, beginning as a research scientist in 1980.
He says Continenza has brought to Kodak the focus required to make the company successful and sustainable.
“He has clearly defined Kodak as an industrial manufacturer and invested in our core strengths in advanced materials, coating and printing technologies,” Taber says. “And, more than any other leader I can remember, he takes time to visit our manufacturing teams and our customers to make the connection between what we do well and what our customers want and need.”
Continenza regularly hosts “Coffee with Jim” at Kodak sites.
The get togethers — done in-person and virtually — are with employees to whom Continenza looks for guidance on what’s working and what may need to be fixed.
He also wants employees to speak freely so managers are not allowed to sit in. These informal meetings have yielded results.
“We’ve fixed a lot of things we didn’t know about,” Continenza says, adding that workers are the heart of the business. “Those who run the machines know the machines. I can run the company, but I can’t make the products.”
Continenza believes in open communication.
“I don’t need yes people around me,” he says, adding that he gives, and expects in return, respect in public but also supports differing opinions and constructive criticism behind closed doors.
He is also comfortable being dubbed the “blue-collar CEO” by some on Wall Street, noting he may be seen as less polished than other business leaders.
“I’m fine in my life,” he says. “I don’t need to impress anyone.”
Continenza divides his time between Florida and Minnesota. He and his wife have three adult sons, ages 31, 29 and 25.
In his free time, Continenza enjoys a range of outdoor activities, including fishing, hunting and spending time on the water.
While Continenza has no immediate plans to retire, he believes in working to secure Kodak has a strong leadership in place as well as a succession plan so when he does get ready to step aside, the company is well positioned to continue growing without him.
“Never again will we lay silent as a victim” he says.
[email protected] / (585) 653-4021
Name: Jim Continenza, executive chairman and CEO, Eastman Kodak Co.
Residence: Florida and Minnesota
Family: Wife, Sandi, three adult sons
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, 1984
Hobbies: Fishing, hunting, being on the water
Quote: “This company lost its courage along the way and took on a victim mentality. Now we have to be warriors.”