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Thomas J. Watson, Jr.

CEO 1956 - 1971


Full biography

Thomas J. Watson Jr. was chairman and chief executive officer during IBM's most explosive period of growth. He led the company from the age of mechanical tabulators and typewriters into the computer era.

During his leadership, IBM grew from a medium-sized business to one of the dozen largest industrial corporations in the world. When Mr. Watson became CEO in 1956, IBM employed 72,500 people and had a gross income of $892 million. When he stepped down in 1971, employees numbered more than 270,000 and gross revenue was $8.3 billion. Fortune magazine once called him "the greatest capitalist who ever lived."

Mr. Watson was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1914 -- the year his father left National Cash Register Co. to join IBM (then known as Computing-Tabulating-Recording Co.). He graduated from Brown University in 1937 and joined IBM in October of that year as a salesman in Manhattan.

Being the son of IBM's iron-willed chief weighed heavily on the younger Watson. In 1986 he told the Wall Street Journal, "The biggest motivation to me was fear and pride. Once I'd been around here a little while, I decided that my ambition was to prove to the world that I could run on the same race track as my dad. I liked the old gentleman; there was tremendous competition between us."

Mr. Watson's IBM career was on hold from 1940 to 1945 when he served as a B-24 pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Upon returning to IBM in 1946, he rose rapidly, becoming vice president and a member of the board of directors within a year. By 1952, Mr. Watson was president, second in command to his father. In May 1956, Thomas Watson Sr. officially turned over the title of chief executive officer to his son six weeks before his death at age 82.

Mr. Watson pushed strongly to enter corporate computing, a field the company would come to dominate. His father initially resisted the huge investment required to build plants and laboratories to create a new generation of products and to hire armies of people to sell them. But as the demand grew for high-volume information processing the younger Watson's views prevailed.

Mr. Watson also broke with his father in establishing a more relaxed, decentralized style of management. Among his first accomplishments upon taking over the company was a major realignment, splitting IBM into six autonomous divisions and the World Trade Corp.

Mr. Watson stepped down as chairman and CEO in 1971, a year after suffering a heart attack. He remained a member of IBM's board of directors until 1984, taking time out from 1979 to 1981 to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union.

In 1941, Mr. Watson married Olive Field Cawley. They had a son and five daughters.

Mr. Watson died in Greenwich, Conn., on December 31, 1993 of complications following a stroke. He was 79