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I consider myself so lucky.

Yesterday, I had a retirement exit interview after 40+ years of service at my company.  I retired with about 80% of the income I had when working (counting my defined company pension benefit, my social security benefit, and my wife’s social security benefit).  My wife and I have no debt or mortgage. And, fortunately, I had the capability to amass modest investment of both cash and tax differed accounts upon which my wife and I can draw in emergencies.

Sadly, the company I retired from, Eastman Kodak, struggles in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Follow me past the orange squiggle for a little reminiscence.  

Suffice it to say, I’ve retired from a completely different company than I joined.  When I joined Kodak in 1971, new employees then felt they’d have a good Kodak job for life. Back then, salaried employees always traveled first class.

Each year, usually in March, the company would declare a bonus for the year. Back then, Kodak determined the amount of the bonus based on a formula that included the sum of your last 5 year’s salary. So lucrative were the Kodak bonuses in those days that the car dealerships in Rochester NY held Bonus Day sales. Many Kodak employees purchased automobiles with no financing, with cash, using only their bonus from that year.      

But, in the 1980s and 1990’s working at Kodak changed.

First, only international travel merited first class, and then later on, the company only permitted coach class travel.

In that time, every year or two, usually just before Thanksgiving or Christmas, the company would announce layoffs. The scenario always went as follows:  First, announcements by management of a pending layoff; second, a wait of roughly a month while managers ranked their employees for culling, while human resources personnel prepared separation “packages” for the unlucky employees, and while certain employees opted for a termination with a buyout; third, decision day, in which managers informed all employees of their standings.

Managers would schedule fifteen minute meetings throughout the day with individual employees.  Each employee would leave the interview with a manila envelope hiding their package, some with forced retirement packages, others with termination packages, and the lucky ones with a letter indicating their continued employment. The every-person-gets-an-envelope rule existed to temporarily save embarrassment for the employees forced to leave. I must have survived a dozen separate layoff cycles during my career, even some where, when eligible for retirement, I could have taken a year’s severance pay, and retired early.

As Kodak deteriorated as a place to work, the company no longer calculated bonuses on the last five year’s of salary, but on the current year’s salary.  Later, the legendary bonus morphed into a variable-pay concept, based on a number of different factors, including one’s own performance, and the performance of your immediate group and market division. The company rolled into the variable pay program the notion that all employees should contribute for a few years (by forgoing a portion of their prospective pay increase) into a company-wide kitty for all variable pay to get paid from.  Of course, as Kodak’s cash cow of film and photographic paper sales declined with the advent of digital photography, fewer and fewer employees would get variable pay that would permit anything like the cash purchase of a car.

The company’s defined benefit retirement plan changed for newly hired employees into a Cash Balance plan.  

During these years the company blundered in so many areas:

•    The Kodak legal department failed to see the damage that patent infringement with Polaroid would do when Kodak marketed its instant film

•    In a time when advanced photographers embraced the 35mm film, Kodak developed two disastrous miniature film formats, Disc and Advantix (35-mm like format). The Disc format had crappy quality , and the Advantix format never caught on to overtake the 35 mm film (probably because very few quality camera makers adopted the Advantix format)

•    When film sales declined because of digital photography, the Kodak clung to an unfounded believed of the future life of its film cash cow

•    Early in the support of digital photography, Kodak made very high quality digital image printers, but soon exited that business, farming it out to Japanese and Chinese vendors.  In that move Kodak lost control the design and science of digital printing.

I started at Kodak as a service representative, later going into sales, then becoming a technical sales representative, a national technical expert for computer photofinishing systems, and finally a software engineer. Very few of my colleagues, and even fewer of my managers throughout my career, knew that I did not possess a college degree.  I had completed only two years of a chemistry major. All service electronics and computer programming knowledge came from self-teaching.  I doubt that, starting over today, I could have accomplished the same things without a college degree.

Now, with Kodak in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, my pension has a risk that Kodak will default on its annuity payments.  Fortunately, because I had a defined benefit plan, and since I waited until the age of 66 to retire, and because Kodak’s entry into bankruptcy happened when I was 66, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC), a US Government agency, will fund the entire amount of my pension should Kodak default. And, at least as long as the Republicans can keep their dirty hands off Social Security, my wife and I should be OK.

I remember early in my career, when I was foolish (and Republican), I thought the I would never collect money from Social Security, and that I should have had control of that Social Security money the government forced me to pay each month so I could invest it as I saw fit for my future.  Now that I’ve grown older and wiser, and became a Democrat, I thank my stars the government will continue to provide my Social Security and that it will fund my pension if Kodak defaults.

On the first actual day of my retirement, I feel truly lucky.

Originally posted to Mad 60 on Tue May 01, 2012 at 10:32 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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