The following is the text of "At Home" -- an informal conversation with Tom Watson, Jr., about IBM, his career, and his plans for the future, published on pages 28-33 of the March 1974 issue of Think, the IBM employee publication.


In the study of his white-brick Colonial home in Greenwich, Conn. a 15-minute drive from Armonk [N.Y.] Tom Watson, Jr., looks out the window and gestures toward a 30-foot pine moving slightly in the light wind.

"See that tree?" he asks. "It was given me by Bob Prescott, the fellow who started the Flying Tigers Line. I planted it myself. It was only a few feet tall. Now look at it."

Before he sits down, he pats the gleaming head of a carved wooden elephant that stands by one of the chairs. "Got this in Africa, during the war in 1942. It cost seven dollars. I bought two. Olive never liked it, and for years I had to keep it hidden in closets. But now we've brought it out."

Watson sits on the sofa, long legs stretched out. It is an unseasonably warm February morning, and the sunlight coming into the room glints off the elephant and other souvenirs, knick-knacks, photographs, and paintings which give the room a comfortable, lived-in feeling.

Watson laughs when it's suggested that the interview may be taking up too much of his time. "Never say that to a retired man. I'm not exactly loafing around, but I've got plenty of time. You know, my doctor always made me feel like he couldn't wait to get through with me so he could look at another patient. He's retired now and I talked with him the other day. I started to leave and he said, 'What's your hurry.' And we talked for another hour. That's the way it is."

At ease, seemingly unhurried, IBM's former chairman of the board goes on to talk about his experiences during 37 years with the company the management lessons, the wins, the losses, and some of his personal views.

What are your plans now that you're retired?

TO start with, I'm planning a lot of things that are in the "fun" category. I'm going to do a fair amount of skiing. And beginning about the first of April, I'm going to start preparing for an expedition to Greenland with a lot of young people. I want to work more closely with Brown and Caltech I'm a trustee at both schools and I also will be a Woodrow Wilson Professor. This means that I will spend a week at Depauw University in the spring, lecturing and talking to students. This is the kind of thing I like. If it turns out well, I hope to do more of it.

So you think you'll really enjoy retirement?

I know I will. In a way, my heart attack in the fall of 1970 helped me prepare for this day. It was a strange thing. After a couple of weeks in the hospital, I realized I felt relieved. And this didn't make any sense at all. I called in my doctor and I said, "I must be going crazy." He asked what I meant. I said, "Well, I've had a heart attack and everybody is worried I might die and yet I feel kind of relieved. What's the matter with me?" He said, "I'll tell you what's the matter with you, as I see it. You've had a difficult job and you've never really known how you were going to end it. And now you've had a heart attack and you know you're going to have to start doing something different. That probably is a sense of relief to you because you're a little bit off the hook." I asked him what I should do. He said, "You can go on back to IBM if you want, but you ought to rest a little bit after lunch every day and you ought not to get too excited. But what I'd do if I were you is quit. I would step down." I thought about that for about six months. Finally, I said, "Doctor, you're right." Down I stepped and I've never regretted it.

What factors do you think have been most responsible for IBM's success?

WELL, I think you have to start in by saying that any great enterprise has to have a modicum of luck. It was fortunate that my father was hired into C-T-R [later IBM] in 1914 with a long background in the National Cash Register Company. That background had given him quite a feeling for the fact there were tremendous numbers of accounting jobs in this country that couldn't be done manually. When father first saw a Hollerith punched card machine, he said, "There's great potential in that machine." When he was hired by C-T-R, he saw the meat grinders, the coffee machines, the scales, and the time clocks. But the Hollerith machine was what really made him take the job. Then we moved along from 1914 to 1940, and the machines were slowly improved. And in that time, IBM built up a group of 300 to 500 men around the world who really understood, given a mechanical vehicle, how to mechanize an accounting job. Then, when the end of the war came and electronics were available, we were able to move at a much faster rate with those devices. A factor, perhaps, most responsible for IBM's success was that we had very basic systems knowledge and the fundamental idea of how to take devices, once invented, and apply them to business problems. We also had a large cash flow and a good borrowing base because the punched card machines were on rental.

What do you think makes IBM different from other successful businesses?

THE quality of our people. When my father left the National Cash Register Company, it had unusually talented and competent people. At least a couple of dozen people who worked for NCR between 1900 and 1920 ended up as heads of large American enterprises. Dad decided, in IBM, that the thing that was going to make it a really great corporation was the quality of the people.


1-2 of 2 results | Next