Bloomberg News

John R. Opel, IBM’s Chief at Dawn of PC Era, Dies at 86

November 08, 2011

(Updates with quote from Nicholas Donofrio in fourth paragraph, Opel’s work with Thomas Watson Jr. in 14th paragraph.)

Nov. 4 (Bloomberg) -- John R. Opel, who led International Business Machines Corp. in the 1980s as it introduced its first personal computer, has died. He was 86.

He died yesterday, IBM said, without citing a cause.

As CEO from January 1981 through January 1985, Opel led IBM into a new era as it put a long-running antitrust investigation behind it and dived into competition with Apple Computer Inc. and others in the home-computer market. The first IBM personal computer, or IBM PC, was introduced in August 1981.

“He challenged people’s assumptions,” Nicholas Donofrio, a former senior vice president at IBM, said of Opel in a statement released by the company. “He was always pushing the edge.”

The antitrust case that ended during Opel’s tenure had been filed in 1969 in the final days of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency. It accused IBM of anti-competitive practices in the field of “general purpose digital computers” and aimed to split the Armonk, New York-based company. The case hung over IBM for 13 years, until the Justice Department dropped it in January 1982.

‘Big Is Bountiful’

Opel made the cover of Time magazine on July 11, 1983, for a story titled, “The Colossus That Works: Big Is Bountiful at IBM.” The company’s earnings of $4.4 billion on sales of $34.4 billion made it the most profitable U.S. industrial company in 1982, according to Time.

Under Opel’s direction, IBM “has been acting like its brashest competitors -- entering new markets, chasing the latest technology, trimming organizational fat and selling more aggressively than ever,” Time said.

IBM shares returned 117 percent during Opel’s four-year tenure as chief, more than five times that of the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The company bought a minority stake in chipmaker Intel Corp. during Opel’s time as CEO and reorganized its sales force so that a single representative could sell a wide range of products, the New York Times reported in 1984.

Opel told Time he was bullish on the future for information technology.

“I have yet to hear somebody say they could not use more information,” he said. “Hence the demand for information processing, though perhaps not infinite, is enormous.”

Started in Sales

John Roberts Opel was born on Jan. 5, 1925, in Kansas City, Missouri, and was raised in Jefferson City. He graduated from Westminster College in Fulton before earning his master’s degree in business administration from the University of Chicago in 1949.

He joined IBM as a sales representative in Jefferson City and was promoted to management posts through the 1950s.

Thomas J. Watson Jr., IBM’s CEO from 1956 to 1971, “summoned Opel from the hinterlands” to be his executive assistant in 1959, and Opel learned management at Watson’s side, IBM said in its statement.

In 1966 he became a vice president and was appointed to the management committee the following year. He was named vice president of corporate finance and planning in 1968, senior vice president in 1969, group executive of the Data Processing Product Group in 1972 and president in 1974.

He took over as CEO and chairman of the management committee on Jan. 1, 1981, succeeding Frank T. Cary.

After ceding the CEO role to John F. Akers in 1985, Opel remained as chairman through May 1986 and as a member of IBM’s board and chairman of its executive committee until 1993.

--Editors: Charles W. Stevens, Steven Gittelson

To contact the reporter on this story: Laurence Arnold in Washington at larnold4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at cstevens@bloomberg.net


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