Thomas J. Watson Jr.; Led IBM Into Computer Age

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Thomas J. Watson Jr., who brought International Business Machines--the firm founded by his father--from the age of typewriters into the era of computers, died Friday.

A company spokesman said Watson, who spent years feuding with his father over the direction IBM should take, was 79 when he died at Greenwich Hospital in Greenwich, Conn., after a stroke. He had retired in 1971 after a heart attack and later served as ambassador to the Soviet Union.

Watson was credited with taking a firm similar to the tightknit, stringently run companies operating in Japan today and shaping it into an enduring model of corporate America.

In his 1990 book, "Father, Son & Co., My Life at IBM and Beyond," Watson wrote that his father had employees sing company songs and recite company slogans. His father's favorite motto, "Think" was emblazoned on posters and company newspapers.

The younger Watson's contributions were hailed at the company's annual meeting in April:

"Perhaps the most important legacy of his leadership can be summarized in just three words, 'IBM means service,' " IBM Chairman Louis V. Gerstner said at the time.

Watson was chief executive of IBM from 1956 to 1971, a period during which the company had become a world leader in typewriters and adding machines.

He succeeded in blazing a trail into the unknown world of corporate computing, a move his father strongly resisted at first.

Watson led IBM through the longest and most spectacular growth in modern business history. The company grew from about $700 million in annual revenues to $7.5 billion during his tenure as chief executive, developing into a paternalistic organization that engendered hard work, pride, loyalty and lifelong employment.

Watson became chief executive officer a few months before the death of his father, who started IBM in 1914, the same year Watson was born in Dayton, Ohio.

It was not a job he relished at first.

"I'd heard so many stories about sons of prominent men failing in business," he wrote in his book, "and I could imagine their devastation at finding themselves unable to fill their fathers' shoes."

Watson, who wrote that he learned to love his father, also said he respected him as "the greatest man I ever knew."

The son had grown up in awe of his father's accomplishments. Raised in Short Hills, N.J., and attending private schools, he called himself a privileged and unimpressive youth. He admitted in his memoirs that he spent so much of his time at Brown University flying airplanes and partying that he barely graduated.

Watson applied to become a commercial airline pilot after World War II. But friends persuaded him to join IBM, where he became assistant to Charles Kirk, the company's vice president in charge of sales. When Kirk died in 1947, Watson took over his job.

After his contentious apprenticeship under his father, Watson became the company's president in 1952 and CEO four years later.

"We fought about every major issue of the business--how to finance IBM's growth, whether to settle or fight a federal antitrust suit, what role in IBM other members of our family ought to play," Watson wrote in his book.

"From around 1950 my goal . . . was to push into computers as fast as possible. That meant hiring engineers by the thousands and spending dollars by the tens of millions on new factories and labs. The risk made Dad balk, even though he sensed the enormous potential of electronics as early as I did."

After Watson left the company in 1971, he pursued a variety of interests outside IBM, including aviation, sailing, travel and public service. President Jimmy Carter appointed him ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1979, a post he held through 1980, and he later continued working for disarmament.

Watson is survived by his wife, Olive, six children and 15 grandchildren.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday January 2, 1994 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 6 Metro Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction Watson obituary--An obituary of Thomas Watson Jr., former chief executive of IBM, was accompanied by a photograph of Thomas Watson Sr. in Saturday's editions. Above is the correct picture. PHOTO: Thomas Watson Sr.
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