Known for his forceful personality and values-driven approach, Thomas Watson Sr. planted the seeds for what would become a powerful, global and world-class corporate culture with his progressive convictions. While his son, Thomas Watson Jr., would later codify at IBM many of the practices and beliefs the elder Watson had championed—and others would make additional contributions—the founding vision of IBM’s culture, including its cornerstone motto, was uniquely that of the brilliant and forward-thinking Watson.
Thomas Watson Sr.“Watson, always fond of making the complex seem simple, loved how a whole basket of behaviors were loaded into that one five-letter word.” - Kevin Maney, The Maverick and His Machine.
After a modest rural childhood near Ithaca, New York, Thomas J. Watson got his start in business in sales. He worked first for himself—as a traveling peddler—and later at the National Cash Register Company in Dayton, Ohio, where he was a sales manager and ascended into the executive ranks over a decade-plus tenure. From NCR, Watson became general manager of the Computing Tabulating-Recording Company (C-T-R), moving with his young family to New York City in May 1914 to lead C-T-R, whose name he would change to International Business Machines a decade later. As IBM’s founding chairman, Watson built a powerful tabulating machine business that became a business icon. Credited with defining IBM’s distinctive management style and creating its corporate culture, Watson also became the nation’s foremost celebrity businessman. His coining of the wildly popular “THINK” motto solidified his lifelong success as a salesman and marketer. Watson brought explosive growth to IBM: At the time his death in 1956, IBM boasted nearly US$900 million in annual revenues—one hundred times C-T-R’s annual revenues when Watson took charge of the company in 1914.
Thomas Watson Jr.
The eldest child of IBM founder Thomas J. Watson Sr., Watson Jr. was indoctrinated into IBM business and culture as a child by accompanying his father on business trips and plant visits. Upon graduation from Brown University in 1937, he joined the company as a salesman, following in his father’s footsteps and rising through the ranks to take the reins of IBM in 1956. As a leader, Watson redirected IBM’s efforts toward electronic computers, helping to usher in the computer age and even greater growth for IBM than his father had cultivated. A less forceful personality than Watson Sr., the younger Watson codified many of the cultural practices his father had instituted into policies and programs. In 1962, for example, he introduced IBM’s basic beliefs—respect for the individual, customer service and excellence—ideas echoed today in IBM’s values. Watson Jr. led IBM as its chairman and CEO until 1971, and later served as the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. In 1987, Fortune magazine deemed him “the greatest capitalist in history” for the value he created for IBM shareholders.
Lee Olwell was a longtime friend of Thomas Watson Sr., and his colleague at National Cash Register Co. After the famous 1911 sales meeting at NCR during which the THINK slogan was coined by Watson, it was Olwell who Watson charged with making the first THINK sign and hanging it on the sales department wall at NCR. Watson would carry the slogan with him to C-T-R just three years later, and decades later Olwell would recount the story of the slogan’s genesis for the June 1935 issue of THINK magazine.