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Rising from an entry-level position to become IBM’s fourth CEO, Frank Cary left a legacy of hard work, levelheaded leadership and good humor
Frank Cary on stage, giving a speech

Over the course of more than 30 years at IBM, Frank T. Cary came to be known as an unflappable leader, a demanding but deliberate boss, and an objective thinker. He rose from his post as a sales representative in Southern California all the way to CEO. Along the way, Cary exhibited a levelheaded approach to management and a determined work ethic, whether he was devising new strategies to compete in global markets, shepherding the personal computer into the marketplace, opposing crippling lawsuits, or confronting a personal fear of public speaking.

Born the son of a doctor in Gooding, Idaho, Cary moved with his family as a young boy to Inglewood, California. At the University of California, Los Angeles, he majored in political science with aspirations of becoming a lawyer. Instead, near the end of World War II, Cary joined the US Army and decamped to Japan as a lieutenant. After returning home at age 27, he decided against law school. Supported by the GI bill and his wife’s schoolteacher salary, he enrolled in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, skipping holidays and school breaks to hasten the path to a degree.

Climbing the Big Blue ladder

Cary took on his first role at IBM, a sales post in Los Angeles. His job entailed feeding cards into an IBM 402 accounting machine, which handled the city’s telephone directory listings. Meanwhile, he pored over manuals on IBM’s punched card machinery. Within a few years, Cary became branch manager in Chicago, then district manager in San Francisco.


He became president of the Service Bureau Corporation, an independent IBM adjunct, which leased computing equipment to corporate customers. It was his sixth job in 11 years — with more to come.


Cary became assistant director to the corporate staff, which involved supervising marketing services, systems engineering and long-range planning. A year later, he became vice president of IBM’s Data Processing Division.

From 1966 until 1972, Cary continued to climb the ladder at IBM. He served as general manager of the Data Processing Group, was elected to the IBM Board of Directors, and became a member of the Management Review Committee.



When he assumed the role of chairman, president and CEO on December 31, he became only the fourth person to take the reins since the company’s founding. 

Through his ascent, Cary became known for his powerful physical stature, forceful handshake and reserved demeanor. His wife described him as quiet and down-to-earth. And though largely remembered for his strengths — as a listener, a conflict manager, a problem-solver — Cary struggled with a task that took on an increasingly prominent role as he worked his way up the ranks: public speaking. He applied a steady, focused energy to improving.

“When Cary speaks, it is in a deliberate fashion, with each word carefully pronounced. His restrained style of delivery is not particularly well-suited for addressing large groups, and Cary has worked hard to overcome what he knows is a lack of flair at the podium,” a THINK magazine article observed at the time. “The work has paid off; today he is an accomplished, if not gifted, public speaker.”

Navigating a post-Watson IBM through increased competition

Cary had succeeded T. Vincent Learson, who held the CEO role for less than two years. The company Cary inherited was in the midst of a historic ascent. By the late 1960s, IBM had tripled revenue to USD 7 billion and more than doubled worldwide employee count to 242,000. But it was also a company in transition.

It fell to Cary to define what the company would, or could, become in a post-Watson era. The new CEO doubled down on the principles he believed best defined the company: “respect for the individual, the best in customer service, and the pursuit of excellence in every task we take on.” Meanwhile, heightened competition in the marketplace led Cary to distinguish IBM by directing new investments into product development and marketing. “I had confidence that we could meet all those new kinds of competition,” Cary reflected in an interview in the last issue of THINK, the company magazine first released in 1935, “but I had a lot less confidence on that score in the early ’70s than I do now.”

Confronting lawsuits
‘Terrible waste of money and time and manpower’

Along with the usual tribulations of running a multibillion-dollar company, Cary faced a litany of antitrust lawsuits during his tenure. His first official act as CEO involved signing an out-of-court settlement with another computer manufacturing firm, the Control Data Corporation.

In 1973, IBM lost a case brought by Telex, a hearing aid company, and was ordered to pay USD 352.5 million in damages. (The ruling was later reversed.) At one point there were more than 20 suits against IBM, and in 1980, four cases remained unresolved, including those brought by the US Justice Department and Greyhound. Cary considered the suits “a terrible waste of money and time and manpower. They simply shouldn’t have happened.”

During this procession, Cary found comfort in the unflappability of his colleagues. “They have performed magnificently in the midst of inflation, world monetary instability, computer companies sponsored by foreign countries to compete against them, recession, government regulation,” he explained. “Through it all, they’ve brought this company to the strongest posture it’s ever had.”

A changing world

Partway through Cary’s tenure as CEO, many top American companies came under pressure for doing business with the South African government. IBM was no exception. At first, Cary remained wary of risking the company’s business in the country. “Racial discrimination of any type is contrary to the policies of IBM,” he declared at IBM’s annual meeting in 1973. “While our presence in some ways does support the government of South Africa, we believe we should not leave, that we are a force for good there, and that we would fail our employees and our stockholders if we left.”

But he soon took a stronger stance, joining General Motors chief executive Tom Murphy and GM board member Rev. Leon Sullivan in hosting a historic gathering of America’s leading corporate figures to strategize how to leverage their collective economic might against the continued apartheid. Eventually, in 1977, this resulted in the establishment of the original Sullivan Principles: demanding fair pay as well as equitable working conditions and hiring standards for non-white employees in South African businesses, both in and out of the workplace. When the South African government ignored these demands, IBM took this as the final straw and left the country. It was only when apartheid had ended did the company buy back the South African subsidiary that it had sold.

Just before Cary’s retirement, he made a critical decision. The time had come to catapult IBM into the PC era. He recruited Bill Lowe, of the company’s Boca Raton facilities in Florida, to set up an elite task force to develop an IBM personal computer as quickly as possible. Working around the clock, Lowe and his team launched the company’s first PC in little more than a year. In January of 1981, Cary stepped down from his role as CEO, at age 60, as per company tradition, and from his position as chairman in 1983. 

Cary died at the age of 85 in 2006. He was remembered by his employees and fellow executives as a thoughtful listener with a sense of humor who could bring peace to tense meetings and boardroom disagreements. Under his leadership, IBM boomed, with revenue jumping from USD 9.5 billion to USD 40.2 billion and employee numbers skyrocketing from around 260,000 to nearly 370,000. “More than any other IBM CEO,” the historian James Cortada wrote, “Frank T. Cary turned IBM into a global behemoth.”

With objectivity and his trademark resolve, Cary led the company through some of its most trying yet gainful years, expressing pride throughout in the work of IBM’s many loyal employees. “I’ve had the time of my life,” he said.

More than any other IBM CEO, Frank T. Cary turned IBM into a global behemoth James Cortada Historian

Under Frank Cary’s leadership

Increase in revenue:

>USD 30.6B

New employees:


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