There were many questions. There were few answers.
That's what the executives from Agfa had to deal with as they bravely faced their customers attending the PhotoPlus East show held in New York in late October. These dealers were looking for important answers to their concerns about the future of Agfa and how it impacts them and their investment in Agfa. The big guys are kept up-to-date by company execs on a frequent basis. The New York show was the first chance for an independent to speak with someone from HQ.
Unfortunately, the Agfa situation at that time was very fluid, as the court administrator in Germany was tap-dancing with prospective suitors, and conflicting reports were being published as to the possible purchase of all or parts of the Agfa operation. Negotiations with Photo-Me International were on again, off again. Then the statement by an Agfa spokesman that if nothing was to be resolved, the entire operation would be shut down on Dec. 31. This was heavy stuff for a dealer with $100,000–$200,000 of Agfa equipment in his store.
Agfa staff and the industry followed the unfolding events on the PMA Newsline website, which has great connections in Europe and would update information once or even twice daily.
It was a difficult scenario for president Bing Liem and the staff of AgfaPhoto USA, one of 32 separate firms responsible for the worldwide distribution of Agfa-brand minilabs, wholesale labs, film, paper, and chemicals. The PhotoPlus East annual show would open on Oct. 20 for three days, and Bing had already paid for show space. Yet why go to the additional expense of setting up equipment and staff a booth when two things were obvious: No one would be buying anything, and everyone would be asking questions that staff would be unable to answer.
The difficult decision was made. According to Dan Unger, director of marketing communications, "We had a responsibility to meet our customers face-to-face. We had to let them know we are still in business. To run and hide would be the worst thing we could do. It would have sent the wrong message."
Unfortunately, Dan knew that those stopping at the booth would ask questions he would not be able to answer. He was right.
One dealer wanted to know what would happen to his warranty if Agfa does not emerge from bankruptcy. Others were concerned about the continuing supply of parts for their equipment. What about paper and chemicals for their labs?
ealers both at the New York show and elsewhere have to be concerned with such matters, as well as the future trade-in value of their equipment, their standing with their leasing company, commitments made by Agfa staff, etc.
Among the other Agfa folks at the booth besides Dan were Wayne Stroebel, minilab product manager; Craig Wetherbee, senior marketing manager; John Roberts, consumer product manager; and John Heffner, regional manager. All brave souls were willing to endure three full days of negativity. They listened to all questions and complaints patiently but had to freely admit that they did not have answers. Frustrations on all sides went unrelieved.
Meanwhile, back in Europe, those holding the key to the answers were busy playing games of brinkmanship, issuing statements that clarified previously issued statements, maneuvering, and posturing. At stake was the future of thousands of families worldwide depending on Agfa; 32 sales, service, and marketing organizations devoted to and relying on the brand; and a loyal dealer structure. Besides, the industry doesn't need more agita.
Maybe by the time you read this it will have all been resolved—hopefully, with a happily-ever-after ending. At this writing, however, it appears as though:
• A negotiated deal for Photo-Me International to buy the whole Agfa package is off, since Photo-Me was apparently looking for a fire sale price that wasn't to be.
• There is a possibility that pieces of Agfa will be sold off to various parties, though one questions the value of buying a paper plant when Kodak, Konica, Fuji, and others have already closed plants and are cutting production and prices to supply the diminishing paper needs of the industry.
• A chemical plant has marginal value but could be of interest to Photo-Me, as it has an installed worldwide base of 28,000 self-service photo booths that have wet systems.