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John Opel, IBM CEO during onset of the PC era, dies at 86

Amar Toor, @amartoo
11.07.11
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John Roberts Opel, the former IBM CEO who helped usher in the PC era, died last week at the age of 86. A native of Kansas City, MO, Opel received his MBA from the University of Chicago in 1949, after fighting in the Philippines and Okinawa during World War II. Upon graduating, he was presented with two job offers -- he could either re-write economics textbooks, or assume control of his father's hardware business in Missouri. Not particularly enthralled with either opportunity, Opel decided to think things over during a fishing trip with his father and a family friend. As fate would have it, that friend turned out to be Harry Strait, an IBM sales manager. Strait offered Opel a sales position at the company, fortuitously setting the young grad on a career path that would span 36 years. Opel's career, in fact, began and peaked at two inflection points that would come to define not only IBM, but the computing industry as a whole. When he came aboard, IBM was still producing typewriters and other accounting devices; but that would soon change, with the dawn of the computing era.

In 1959, he became assistant to then-chief executive Thomas J. Watson Jr. Just five years later, he oversaw the introduction of IBM's System 360 mainframe computer. He was appointed vice president in 1966, president in 1974 and, on January 1st, 1981, took over as IBM's fifth CEO, replacing Frank T. Cary. During his four-year tenure, Opel led IBM's push into the burgeoning PC market, overseeing the launch of IBM's first PC, the 5150, just seven months after taking the reins. He was also at the helm in 1982, when the Department of Justice dropped its 13-year antitrust suit against IBM, allowing the firm to expand its operations. Opel took full advantage. Under his stewardship, IBM's revenue nearly doubled and its corporate stature grew accordingly. In 1983, Opel made the cover of Time magazine, under a headline that read, "The Colossus That Works." He stepped down as CEO in 1985, served as chairman until 1986 and would remain on IBM's board until 1993. On Thursday, he passed away in Ft. Myers, FL, due to undisclosed causes. John Roberts Opel is survived by his wife of 56 years, five children, 15 grandchildren and a legacy that extends far beyond these 400 words.

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