John Opel
IBM’s fifth CEO spurred a revolution in personal computing
John Opel in a plain red background wearing a black suit and black and white striped tie

After John R. Opel earned an MBA from the University of Chicago in 1949, he had two job prospects. One was to rewrite economics textbooks. The other was to take over his father’s Jefferson City, Missouri, hardware store. Neither seemed especially appealing.

Opel went fishing with his dad and a family friend to mull things over. While they were out in the boat, the friend, Harry Strait, an IBM sales manager, offered him a job selling business equipment in central Missouri. That chance encounter launched a career at IBM that spanned more than four decades and culminated with Opel presiding over one of the most successful companies in the world, as president of IBM from 1974 to 1983, CEO from 1981 to 1985, and chairman of the board in 1983.

‘The Colossus That Works’
Revenue nearly doubled under Opel’s watch 

Opel’s years at IBM coincided with the company’s rise from a modest-size maker of accounting devices to the leader of a rapidly expanding computer industry and a trendsetter for the Information Age. Concurrent with Opel’s rise to CEO in 1981, IBM released its groundbreaking IBM 5150 personal computer, which became known as the IBM PC. It was an instant hit.

A year later, the US Department of Justice dropped a 13-year-long antitrust lawsuit against IBM, freeing the company to compete aggressively in the emerging PC market. Revenue nearly doubled during Opel’s tenure as CEO, and Time featured him on its cover with the headline “The Colossus That Works.”

Opel was described as the rare self-effacing CEO and sensitive to other people’s points of view. He studied English at Westminster College in Missouri and read voraciously, including poetry. He was a bird-watcher and a fisherman. He rarely granted interviews or spoke about his private life and looked the part of the quintessential IBMer.

An IBM board member once described Opel as “plain vanilla, but good plain vanilla.” Yet he was intellectually aggressive. “He challenged people’s assumptions. He was always pushing the edge,” recalled Nicholas Donofrio, a longtime IBM executive who joined the company in 1964.

He challenged people’s assumptions. He was always pushing the edge. Nicholas Donofrio IBM executive
The rise of the PC
A seismic shift in computing

Opel provided the final drive to bring the IBM PC to market, which brought about a seismic shift in computing. Personal computers were no longer the sole province of hobbyists and engineers, and a revolution in business operations and personal productivity ensued.

Opel couldn’t have guessed that he was headed for the top of IBM when he joined the company and began selling electronic accounting machines and time clocks in Missouri’s Ozarks region. In those days, IBM salespeople installed the equipment after selling it, so Opel became adept with pliers and screwdrivers even as he learned how to craft and deliver an effective sales pitch.

Opel studied how to manage people at the side of Thomas J. Watson Jr., who ran IBM from 1952 to 1970. Watson made Opel his executive assistant in 1959 after watching him teach sales classes in Endicott, New York. Working with Watson at IBM headquarters in Armonk, New York, Opel was impressed with the way Watson dealt with his executives. He’d insist on a full debate on any fundamental disagreement, and he didn’t let his personal feelings prevent him from giving any individual a fair hearing. It was a management style Opel would emulate.

From the CEO’s assistant to the CEO
A remarkable tenure

After working in sales for a decade, followed by the stint as Watson’s assistant, Opel made his mark by managing the launch of IBM’s System/360 mainframe family in 1964. He later headed up communications, ran product divisions and served as the chief financial officer. During his tenure as IBM president, Opel and his mentor, CEO Frank Cary, set up a skunkworks project that resulted in the introduction of the IBM PC.

“We constantly were willing to change and were accelerating our ability to change,” Opel recalled of the early PC days.

Opel stepped down as IBM’s chief executive in 1985 and remained a board member until 1993. It was a remarkable tenure. Opel started his career with IBM at the dawn of the computer age. When he left, the personal computer market was exploding, and the IBM PC had become an industry standard.

John Opel died at his home in Florida on November 3, 2011.

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