On December 14, 1992, I had just returned from one of those always well-intentioned but rarely stimulating charity dinners that are part of a New York City CEO's life, including mine as CEO of RJR Nabisco. I had not been in my Fifth Avenue apartment more than five minutes when my phone rang with a call from the concierge desk downstairs. It was nearly 10 p.m. The concierge said, "Mr. Burke wants to see you as soon as possible this evening."
Startled at such a request so late at night in a building in which neighbors don't call neighbors, I asked which Mr. Burke, where is he now, and does he really want to see me face to face this evening?
The answers were: "Jim Burke. He lives upstairs in the building. And, yes, he wants very much to speak to you tonight."
I didn't know Jim Burke well, but I greatly admired his leadership at Johnson & Johnson, as well as at Partnership for a Drug-Free America. His handling of the Tylenol poisoning crisis years earlier had made him a business legend. I had no idea why he wanted to see me so urgently. When I called, he said he would come right down.
When he arrived he got straight to the point: "I've heard that you may go back to American Express as CEO, and I don't want you to do that because I may have a much bigger challenge for you." The reference to American Express was probably prompted by rumors that I was going to return to the company where I had worked for eleven years. In fact, in mid-November 1992, three members of the American Express board had met secretly with me at the Sky Club in New York City to ask that I come back. It's hard to say if I was surprised -- Wall Street and the media were humming with speculation that then CEO Jim Robinson was under board pressure to step down. However, I told the three directors politely that I had no interest in returning to American Express. I had loved my tenure there, but I was not going back to fix mistakes I had fought so hard to avoid. (Robinson left two months later.)
I told Burke I wasn't returning to American Express. He told me that the top position at IBM might soon be open and he wanted me to consider taking the job. Needless to say, I was very surprised. While it was widely known and reported in the media that IBM was having serious problems, there had been no public signs of an impending change in CEOs. I told Burke that, given my lack of technical background, I couldn't conceive of running IBM. He said, "I'm glad you're not going back to American Express. And please, keep an open mind on IBM." That was it. He went back upstairs, and I went to bed thinking about our conversation.
The media drumbeat intensified in the following weeks. Business Week ran a story titled "IBM's Board Should Clean Out the Corner Office." Fortune published a story, "King John [Akers, the chairman and CEO] Wears an Uneasy Crown." It seemed that everyone had advice about what to do at IBM, and reading it, I was glad I wasn't there. The media, at least, appeared convinced that IBM's time had long passed.
On January 26, 1993, IBM announced that John Akers had decided to retire and that a search committee had been formed to consider outside and internal candidates. The committee was headed by Jim Burke. It didn't take long for him to call.
I gave Jim the same answer in January as I had in December: I wasn't qualified and I wasn't interested. He urged me, again: "Keep an open mind."
He and his committee then embarked on a rather public sweep of the top CEOs in America. Names like Jack Welch of General Electric, Larry Bossidy of Allied Signal, George Fisher of Motorola, and even Bill Gates of Microsoft surfaced fairly quickly in the press. So did the names of several IBM executives. The search committee also conducted a series of meetings with the heads of many technology companies, presumably seeking advice on who should lead their number one competitor! (Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, candidly told one reporter that IBM should hire "someone lousy.") In what was believed to be a first-of-its-kind transaction, the search committee hired two recruiting firms in order to get the services of the two leading recruiters -- Tom Neff of Spencer Stuart Management Consultants N.V., and Gerry Roche of Heidrick & Struggles International, Inc.
The foregoing is excerpted from Who Says Elephants Can't Dance? by Louis V. Gerstner. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
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