Thomas Watson, Jr. remembered

(1994 retrospective)

Immediately after Tom Watson, Jr.'s death on December 31, 1993, the IBM employee publication Think published a final remembrance of the man entitled "Corporate Legend, True Human Being," written by Ames Nelson, in its January-February 1994 issue. The following is the text of that article.


Called the "most successful capitalist who ever lived" by Fortune magazine and named one of the 25 people "who changed the world" by Computerworld, Thomas J. Watson, Jr., transformed IBM into the model of the modern multinational corporation. Commented Le Monde in Paris, "He made the company into a formidable technological and especially commercial engine, and gave IBM its international dimension."

He was born the year his father became president of a small firm that later would become International Business Machines Corporation, and he died December 31, 1993, shortly before his 80th birthday.

As IBM's chief executive between 1956 and 1971, Watson had the insight to recognize the profound change electronics could bring to industry and then champion the change needed to make his own company the leader in the computer industry it spawned. "I knew in my gut," he later said, "we had to get into computers even though they seemed like another kind of animal." In the mid-'50s it was not at all clear IBM would succeed in its transition from typewriters and punched-card tabulators to transistors and integrated circuits. But Watson boosted the company's R&D budget, hired thousands of engineers, and embarked on projects that tested the limits of computing know-how.

He was best known for his landmark decision to develop the System/360 "the most influential computer system the world has known, until the personal computer," according to The Economist of London. The all-purpose family of computers made existing machines (IBM's included) obsolete almost overnight when introduced in 1964.

A Leading Innovator

Even before that, Watson was acknowledged as a leading innovator in American enterprise. In a 1963 cover story, Business Week described IBM as "a vastly different company in product mix, in production technology, in management structure" since he had taken over.

If Watson was visionary about the potential of technology, he was equally in the vanguard concerning social issues. He abolished the hourly wage in IBM, introduced tuition loans and pioneered matching grants for charities. As an industry spokesman and public servant in various posts for several U.S. presidents, he advocated federal aid for the impoverished, better national health care and nuclear disarmament.

A fiercely competitive business leader, Watson also carried his taste for challenge into private life. He was a seasoned yachtsman, a superb skier and a passionate pilot of all manner of machines from biplanes and gliders to helicopters and private jets.

At a memorial service shortly after his death, friends and colleagues remembered Watson with admiration and affection. Former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance praised Watson's belief in the "social and humanitarian responsibility business must carry." and cited Watson's "gift to brush aside the irrelevant and get to the core" of an issue.

"He was a critical lover and loving critic" of his alma mater, remembered Brown University President Vartan Gregorian, as he vividly recalled an "extraordinary man -- passionate, humorous, hot-tempered, curious, generous ... and a ruthless competitor who valued integrity and perseverance.

Said retired broadcaster Walter Cronkite, "Tom was a sailor -- he was a great sailor." His passion for adventure and the unknown was an "expression of the man [and] the enthusiasm he brought to everything he touched." And, in a fond recollection of the man he knew as "Skipper." grandson T. William Watson said: "He always tried to get to places he wasn't supposed to go."

What Legends Are Made Of

Watson's character and convictions left indelible impressions on thousands of IBM employees, as well, from the board room to the branch office. Said former IBM Chairman Frank Cary: "He urged everyone to bring their ideas forward to improve the business, and his instincts always favored the regular employee."

Bonnie Greer, operations support manager for the Connecticut Central Trading Area, would agree: "I went to New Managers' School last March and Mr. Watson paid us a surprise visit. I don't ever remember being star-struck at the sight of someone ... [but] his presence was captivating.

"He spoke to us with a down-to-earth quality as if he were one among us. His wisdom was simple and humorous, and I thought how easily he drew the room into realizing an immense leader is also a true human being. "He was what corporate legends are made of ... and remembered for."