Former Kodak Executive Is a Man on a Mission : Religion: Kay R. Whitmore’s new role with the Mormon Church in England has few measures of success and no bottom line. He’s now in the people business, and he likes it.
Across from a weed-infested train station, next to a store selling “part-worn tyres,” the ousted chief executive of Eastman Kodak has found a new calling.
Kay R. Whitmore, who left Kodak under pressure in December, is once again a leader, but this time, as the supreme Mormon missionary of southern England. A few weeks into the non-paying job, Whitmore pondered life after the boardroom and said he’s not sure how to size up everything. He said he sees more differences than similarities between this post and his job at Kodak, which paid a salary of around $1 million a year, plus stock options.
One big change is not having to worry about the bottom line--missionaries don’t have one.
“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,” Whitmore said.
“You can’t--like you can in business--open up the cash box and see if I got more money today than I had yesterday.”
Whitmore, 64, is now called “President Whitmore” in this tight religious circle where a male missionary would take on the title “Elder Smith” and a woman would be “Sister Jones.” He still looks the part of a CEO, neatly groomed in a dark suit, and notes apologetically that a big photograph of Ezra Taft Benson has not yet been replaced, nearly two months after the Mormon president’s death.
His office is simple, a far cry from the executive suite at Kodak’s Rochester, N.Y., headquarters. A bust of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith rests on the portable air conditioner. The wall is covered with pictures of all the missionaries who work from the bustling streets of London to the shadow of Dover Castle.
His new life is “much more people-intensive than I’ve been accustomed to,” Whitmore said.
“The world I came from was very much thing- and financial-intensive. How do you sell photographic products? How do you make a profit from that? There was a people element to it, but this--there isn’t anything in this but people work.”
Colleagues at Kodak brought the normal array of human problems to work, but once it was quitting time, the problems went home with the people. It is different at the mission, where Whitmore is in charge of about 180 young adults who sacrifice two years of their lives to preach the Mormon message to that rare person who doesn’t shut the door in their face.
Sickness or accidents require Whitmore’s immediate attention. He has to be on call in case anybody breaks the strict rules, for example by trying to go out on a date, taking in the movies or ordering a pint of beer in one of Britain’s countless pubs.
“If they’ve got a problem today, then you’ve got to solve it today,” Whitmore said. “You can’t say, ‘I’m busy today. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.’ ”
Whitmore retired from Kodak after disagreeing with board members about how fast the stumbling photographic company should cut costs and jobs to combat intense competition from Japan.
Whitmore was replaced by George M.C. Fisher, formerly the boss at Motorola Inc.
“You could say that I was invited to make room for an outsider,” Whitmore said. “I guess I really don’t care to talk about the specifics of that. I don’t think there was as much disagreement as the press has reported.”
When his 37-year tenure at Kodak ended, Whitmore and his wife, Yvonne, didn’t immediately know what to do.
Whitmore figured he’d spent enough of life working for somebody else. He thought of opening his own business, maybe entering politics, or doing community service.
But more than 2,000 miles away from Rochester, within the Mormon Church hierarchy in Salt Lake City, Whitmore was “a well-enough-known Mormon that they knew what was happening to me.”
On Jan. 3, the Whitmores got a phone call asking them to run one of the church’s 300 missions.
Although Whitmore is a lifelong Mormon born in Salt Lake City, he never spent two years of his youth as a missionary, as many Mormons do. He came of age in the Korean War era and was drafted, then finished school, got married and joined Kodak.
But now, the time was right.
In keeping with tradition, the Whitmores had to decide whether to become missionaries without knowing where they would serve, although both thought London would be ideal.
“We could have gone anywhere, from Provo, Utah--there is one of these things even in the western part of Mormon country--all the way down to Durban, South Africa,” Whitmore said.
Now that he’s here, learning how to drive on the left side and interpret strange road signs that say “give way,” instead of “yield,” Whitmore said his main goal is to improve the lives of the young missionaries as they try to convert others to Mormonism in a nation whose religious life is dominated by the Church of England.
But, again in contrast to being a corporate honcho, Whitmore sets no numerical targets. Quotas might lead to cutting corners--and converts who aren’t totally convinced.
“We occasionally find people of very limited capability, and they like the missionaries because they’re nice and friendly and they’re warm,” Whitmore said. “They’re not fully there, mentally. We wouldn’t want to go out and attract people like that because they’re not really capable” of making a real commitment to Mormonism.
“We could go out and pick up all the derelicts on the street and get them baptized next week and they’d probably think it’s nice for a day as long as we gave them a meal.
“But that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re here trying to improve people’s lives.”