John F. Akers
An icon of IBM culture hits a wall of unprecedented competition in a new market
Headshot of a smiling John Akers

John F. Akers was the chief executive and chairman of IBM during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The very model of a Big Blue executive throughout the heady days of the company’s domination of the mainframe computer market starting in 1960, he took the helm of IBM during the early days of the personal computer revolution.

In a 2010 interview, Akers described the IBM in which he came of professional age as a company whose homogeneity conveyed stability and earnestness. “We wore blue suits, white shirts with button-down collars, striped ties, fedoras and wingtip shoes,” he said. “The customers felt they could trust us.”

The Boston native, born in 1934, had aspired to become an engineer like his father, who had graduated from MIT. But his father dissuaded him from that path. So Akers opted to attend Yale University, where he earned an undergraduate business degree in 1956 and was an all-Ivy League hockey player. Upon graduation, he joined the US Navy, where he spent four years as a carrier jet pilot, ascending to the rank of lieutenant.

The ascent through IBM

After the Navy, Akers joined IBM, where he received sales training before being assigned for three years to the Vermont sales territory. His first big customer was a dairy association, and he quickly rose through the ranks. The company promoted him 16 times in 23 years.

During this era, IBM was emerging as the nascent computer industry’s first true powerhouse. The company’s System/360 mainframe family, released in 1964, transformed entire industries with computing capabilities that were adaptable to businesses of varying sizes. Akers was integral to the enormous successes of System/360 and its successor, System/370.

In 1971, he moved to company headquarters in Armonk, New York, and assumed the role of executive assistant to Frank T. Cary, a senior vice president who would eventually become CEO. Akers would later compare the mentorship he received from Cary to getting an MBA. (In a pattern often seen in the company, one of Akers’s own executive assistants, Samuel J. Palmisano, also would later go on to lead the company.)

In 1974, at 39 years old, Akers became president of the data processing division, then IBM’s largest marketing unit in the US. The company elevated him to president in 1982 and in 1985 installed him as the sixth chairman in its history.

The company promoted Akers 16 times in 23 years
Increased competition in PCs

As Akers took the helm of the company, competition in the market for personal computers had become intense. Thinking that smaller divisions could be more agile, he advocated for splitting the company into more than a dozen independent concerns. But he resisted downsizing. Rather than laying off employees, he offered retirement incentives to older workers. It was classic Akers — protecting the livelihoods of his colleagues. “People liked John Akers,” Palmisano would recall later, “because they knew he cared about them — as employees, as people and as IBMers. John was so committed to the institution and its culture.”

In Akers’s obituary in the New York Times, Harvard Business School professor David B. Yoffie, who had interviewed him many times, added, “John Akers clearly understood that the future of IBM was much more in software and services than in hardware and that the current company had to be pared down,” he said. But devotion to his employees kept him from making the types of radical changes that would ultimately be required.

In 1993, after IBM had reported its largest yearly loss and had seen its share price collapse, Akers stepped down as CEO and left the company shortly thereafter.

Akers died in 2014 at the age of 79, survived by his wife of 54 years, Susan Davis Akers, three children and 10 grandchildren. He established a legacy as one of the most vitally important contributors to the history of IBM.

People liked John Akers because they knew he cared about them — as employees, as people and as IBMers. John was so committed to the institution and its culture. Samuel J. Palmisano Former IBM CEO
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