Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Loïs Lebegue: Man of the Moment

Loïs Lebegue has been a Kodak employee for almost 25 years. Over the course of his professional career, the Frenchman, who is now a vice-president and managing director of the Asia, Latin America, Middle East and Africa (ALMA) region, has witnessed the startling transformation of a brand that was once a byword for photography.

Making still cameras and a range of film for different applications, the Eastman Kodak Co., commonly known as Kodak, dominated the market in the 20th century. The “Kodak moment", the company’s tag line, became part of millions of lives worldwide. Kodak’s downturn happened in the early 2000s with the rise of digital technology and the company’s inability to adapt to a changing market. Steadily falling behind competitors, Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection in the US in January 2012.

Any company is only as good as its employees. And it speaks volumes about the capabilities of Lebegue, 47, and his colleagues that within a short period of time, Kodak has reinvented its profile and been able to weather most of the storm. Eastman Kodak Co.’s financial results for the second quarter of 2015 indicate that thanks to a reduction in operational expenses, the net loss reduced from $62 million (around 409 crore) in the second quarter of 2014 to $23 million in the second quarter of 2015.

Kodak has of course stopped selling still cameras and the film required for them. Instead, it now focuses on high-end printing solutions and developing newer touch-sensitive technology. “The best way to adapt is to go with the flow and try to not be bothered by things that you cannot change. Take the best and forget the rest," Lebegue says.

His first job at Kodak was a dream assignment. Kodak was one of the main sponsors for both the summer and winter Olympics in 1992. “The summer Olympics was taking place in Barcelona, Spain, and the winter Olympics in Albertville, France," Lebegue explains. “I was working in communications and given the responsibility to manage sponsorships. It was an incredible experience when you are 23 or 24. But after the games got over, I had to show the company that I could also make money for them."

Armed with a map and a company car, Lebegue went into sales. He was based out of Paris, where he was born and raised, and he had the good fortune of being able to choose his next assignment. “There was a particular part of sales that I wanted to do, which was key accounts for Europe," he remembers. “The clients were governments or big enterprises, and I was selling a portfolio of almost 6,000 products, which included high-speed film for testing car crashes, X-rays, copiers and movie film stock. It was a big learning experience."

For his family, it might not have come as a big surprise that he decided to work for Kodak. After all, the family has had its links with photography and Kodak for several decades. Lebegue’s great-grandfather was an architect in charge of the maintenance of many famous monuments in Paris. When an accident left him blind, he started selling and tuning pianos. After the end of World War I, the economy was shaky and his son (Lebegue’s grandfather) had to leave school and work in a factory to help the family.

“His job was working in the first factory where mass production cameras were made by Kodak," Lebegue says. “So one day, he came back from work and told his dad that pianos were not a good business and suggested becoming photographers. They sold the pianos and became one of the biggest distributors of photographic products in France." What was incredible was that Lebegue’s great-grandfather, who was blind, was one of the first professional photographers in France. “In those days, people wanted to take family portraits, and my great-grandmother would welcome the clients. She would say the photographer is coming, and my great-grandfather would appear in his large dark glasses, carrying a cane. Because of his blindness he had this almost sixth sense of knowing when people were relaxed and he took beautiful pictures. But imagine the faces of the customers. Later, even my father and my brother became professional photographers."

Lebegue’s career with Kodak has taken him to many parts of the world. Currently based in Singapore, he has spent the last 10 years working in Asia, in Singapore, Tokyo and Shanghai. “The capacity to understand many cultures has been crucial for my life and career," he says. “I am managing Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East…I think it’s around 130 countries. You learn a lot from the people you meet."

Kodak has, of course, not completely stopped manufacturing film. The “trusted guardians of family memories", as Lebegue describes the company of old, still makes film for the movies. He speaks with pride when he mentions the names of directors who still swear by Kodak: Christopher Nolan, Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson. “The movie industry, despite its fast movement into digital, still has famous directors worldwide who only want to shoot on Kodak film," he says. “Interstellar was shot using Kodak film, so was Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, the new James Bond film, Spectre, and the upcoming Star Wars. I remember Chris Nolan telling me one day that ‘digital is plywood, film is oak.’"

Photographic and movie film accounts for less than 10% of Kodak’s current business. But Lebegue was insistent that Kodak still enrich the everyday lives of people. “I’m looking at the things on this table, and a lot of it is touched by Kodak," he says, as we sit at the Club Lounge at the Hotel Le Méridien in Delhi. “When you open a newspaper, the consumables, the systems, the workflows to print a newspaper is part of Kodak technology. When you read a book, there is a great chance that it has been created and printed using Kodak technology. We are very strong in the packaging industry and five or six years ago we created a new technology to print flexible packages for food and other goods. It is a fast-growing market where you need high quality because you have to stand out among the competition."

He is upbeat about the way Kodak’s old technology has been upgraded and adapted to meet newer demands. He talks about Kodak’s development of touch- screen technology. “We use our core competency of depositing materials on a substrate, and the next generation is developing touch screens and modules that are touch sensors. The most critical component of touch screens is made using Indium tin oxide."

In parenthesis: When Loïs Lebegue was younger, he had a passion for horse riding and even took part in show-jumping competitions. Now that he is older and has a hectic schedule, Lebegue tries to spend as much time as he can with his family—his wife, daughter (19) and son (17). But a part of him still craves the adrenalin rush and sometimes he indulges in sky diving and riding motorbikes. In fact, his love for bikes is quite deep… “I still ride bikes. I don’t have a car. My wife has one but I never use it, Lebegue says. “When I was living in Japan I had a Triumph and it was very special. I think my next acquisition will be a Royal Enfield.

But there are very few sources for it. “It is expensive and is a material that is difficult to bend. So we are using silver, which is cheaper and easier to bend; you have touch screens that are less expensive. By the end of the year we are going to be in people’s lives, in their devices in a big way."

India figures prominently in Kodak’s plans. Lebegue is a regular visitor—by his estimate, he has probably visited the country 50 times. “India is very key to our new developments. It represents an enormous market with a middle class that wants more choices and products. In the printing industry, it is not much different from advanced countries. We have also had tie-ups with the government, and our technology has helped print the census forms and more than a third of the Aadhaar cards."

When asked about values that define Kodak, Lebegue talks about the brand being trusted by customers. He also emphasizes the sustainability of a company that has seen its share of tough times. “Sometimes we have created things that almost killed us, like when an engineer at Kodak labs created the first digital camera," he says. The story goes that 25-year-old Steve Sasson invented the first digital camera in 1975. It weighed almost 4kg and had only 0.01 megapixels. But Kodak was not convinced about its viability.

“But our business is between people, not computers or machines. And taking care of your employees and being close to your customers are important in business and life."

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