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IBM Centennial: It's all about the future

“Townhall of the Century” and IBM Centennial Lecture in Singapore pay tribute to our centennial milestone but more importantly cast forward to how we will drive the next century of progress

IBM Chairman, President and CEO Sam Palmisano’s excitement about IBM’s one-hundredth anniversary was palpable at the Townhall of the Century in Singapore. 2011 is an opportunity to tell a unique story – ours.

“Why has IBM been able to last 100 years through all these technology cycles? What has it been about? What are those capabilities and that culture that drove this centennial to this point in time, and how do we take that to the future, that is Smarter Planet? We're going to have this occasion to explain to the world who we are.”

Sam shared 75 minutes with a highly appreciative audience comprising over 1500 IBMers based in Singapore and a group of 25 high performers from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam selected as ASEAN representatives. The event on 11 February 2011 was held at The Rock in Suntec City, the same venue where Sam’s first townhall in Singapore took place in May 2007.

But in those four years, the global economy has undergone dramatic changes. In November 2008, defying the downturn and free falling financial systems, IBM decided to go forward with our Smarter Planet point of view as a pragmatic agenda for forward-thinking leaders. Today, after a temporary slowdown, Singapore and the rest of ASEAN look set for several years of sustained economic growth.

In the heart of dynamism – ASEAN and Growth Markets

This provided an apt backdrop as Sam spoke about IBM’s 2015 roadmap, the value of long-term thinking and where we go next. Clearly, it was all about the future, and a big part of the future resides in Growth Markets like ASEAN.

“Growth Markets, you all, you're here, you're living it. In the early nineties, it was 12 percent of IBM's revenue. Last year it was 21 percent of IBM's revenue. In the roadmap, it's more than 25 percent of IBM's revenue. If you look at the past several years, GMU has outperformed the major markets by eight to 10 points a quarter - every quarter, eight to 10 percent more growth. So continue the strategy, open up the branches, leverage the skills, push innovation. Be ahead of the trend. Don't trail the trend.”

Build the skills that make the market

Cordelia's Challenge

Cordelia Chung, General Manager, IBM ASEAN, added a challenge to the audience in her welcome remarks, met by an energetic response.

“Out of 170 countries that IBM has operations in, Sam has picked us as one of the early visits in his centennial tour. With all the support that we have from Sam and the senior executives, should we now be even more encouraged and excited and compelled to deliver our part of the bargain? Let us make sure that we learn, we act, we apply and ultimately, we differentiate ourselves with strong value propositions. We go out and capture the market. We make the market and we deliver on the ASEAN 2013 strategy goals.”

Strategy of course is only as good as its execution.

“In a lot of these spaces, we're making the market,” Sam said. “Set the priorities which you've heard from your boss, execute the priorities. I'm going to add one thing here. The only way you're going to differentiate IBM is to have talented people on the ground. Smarter Cities, analytics, cloud, application architecture. This takes real skill and real talent. And that's what differentiates IBM.”

“So build your skills. You can't fly them in from whatever and allow to have them fly out two days later and wonder why you can't deliver the project. You need to have the talent on the ground, and that is all the countries that you operate in, in all those cities.”

Sam’s spirited message on skills was among several that resonated deeply with IBMers at the townhall. They gave Sam a standing ovation at the start, extended applause at the end and hoots of approval in the middle. Read more about IBMers’ reactions.

Reinventing for the future today

At the Centennial Lecture hosted by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy the same day, Sam demonstrated the value of using this moment to engage in new ways with the public at large - not about the previous century, but about the changing nature of leadership in a very different world.

To an oversubscribed audience of over 400 post-graduate students, academics and influencers, Sam offered one lesson with IBM’s willingness to constantly reinvent itself in the service of its clients and the community.

He asserted, “IBM’s history can be seen as a century-long journey to create and continually recreate a culture. Indeed, this was arguably Tom Watson, Sr.'s most enduring contribution to the business world: the notion that an organisation can and must undertake the intentional creation of a culture based on a set of beliefs and values.”

While staying true to its foundational values, a company cannot stand still and must be managed for the long term to truly be successful.

Sam shared, “Managing for the long term tells us something about how and when you take decisive action. It's not a mindset of the slow and steady, of being risk averse. On the contrary, building for the long term is not for the faint hearted. It often compels the enterprise to act when it isn't obvious, to place bets that seem risky in the near term but also allows you to deal with corporate inertia and address issues even in good times.”

During his Centennial-themed visit to Singapore, Sam also met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a private meeting and key government officials and business leaders at a leadership dialogue.

Also heard at the Townhall...

Sam was born in the Year of the Rabbit.

“Let me tell you a secret. Sam was born in the Year of the Rabbit! As you know, the Rabbit is known to be calm, gentle and friendly. Let's hope that it will have a calming, positive effect on the global economy” - Cordelia Chung’s opening remarks at the Townhall of the Century.

No stranger to ASEAN, Sam has visited every one of the ASEAN countries.

“[ASEAN] is a great part of the world. In fact, it's one of my favorite parts of the world, is Asia, of all the places I go. Wonderful people, great food, terrific weather depending on the time of year, but nonetheless, it's terrific.”

In jest and in truth, Sam has great expectations of ASEAN.

“[2010] was a great year! Twelve percent is good, 13 is better, 20 is actually going to be more exciting” – Sam encouraged Cordelia and her ALG to keep striving for the next bar.

Like most of us, cash is high on Sam’s agenda.

“Why is cash so important? Well, cash pays for your bonus. Cash gives you your increases. Cash funded the stock we just gave all the employees of IBM….Over the [last] 10 years we gave $114 billion back to the shareholder, $114 billion in the form of dividends and share buyback. We also invested $75 billion back into the business, that's in acquisitions and capital expenditures” – Sam explaining the need to have profitable revenue.

For more information concerning this article, please contact Karen Yew ( and Ryp Yong (

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