Big Blue is
moving toward the retirement of Louis V. Gerstner Jr., its chairman and
chief executive since 1993, in an exceptionally methodical fashion.
of Samuel J. Palmisano nearly a year ago to president and chief
operating officer made him the clear front-runner to succeed Mr.
Gerstner. In May, Mr. Gerstner made his thinking explicit when he said
during a television interview that Mr. Palmisano was "emerging as
the leader" of the management team that would "take I.B.M. to
who joined I.B.M. right out of college in 1973, is one of a cadre of top
executives who proved flexible enough to thrive in both the old I.B.M.,
with its legendary buttoned-down bureaucracy, and the higher velocity,
hard-edged corporate culture that emerged under Mr. Gerstner during the
1990's. Notably, according to I.B.M. watchers, he managed to hang on to
his nice-guy reputation during that cultural revolution and his climb
toward the top. [...]
Palmisano, who at 6-foot-2 played center and was co-captain of the Johns
Hopkins University football team during his college days, is not known
as Mr. Gerstner is for screaming or angry outbursts calculated to
intimidate employees, consultants or critics. "The first attribute
that comes to mind with Palmisano is `nice guy,'" said Bob
Djurdjevic, president of Annex Research in Phoenix, who is
one of I.B.M.'s most unstinting and caustic critics.
Yet skeptics say
that Mr. Palmisano's accomplishments are also testimony to his skills as
a corporate politician — Mr. Djurdjevic calls him "Teflon
Sam" — and his fortunate arrival at units like global services
just as they were taking off.
And even some
analysts who speak highly of Mr. Palmisano add that I.B.M.'s practice of
moving promising managers like him rapidly through many assignments
makes it hard for outsiders to assess their capabilities. Mr.
Palmisano's brief sojourn from the spring of 1996 to the end of 1997
through the tough personal computer business, for example, coincided
with one of the industry's stronger growth periods. And some wonder
whether aggressive stuffing of sales channels to meet short-term
performance goals during that period may have contributed to the
troubles his successor, David M. Thomas, encountered. Analysts estimate
that I.B.M. lost more than $1 billion in the personal computer business
Mr. Thomas, who
left I.B.M. last year, was among the former colleagues who declined
requests to discuss Mr. Palmisano. [...]