John F. Akers was the iconic IBMer of his era. With a strong jaw and athletic bearing, the Boston native came to epitomize the upright corporate citizen in the conservative blue suit. He joined IBM in 1960 after serving in the Navy as a jet pilot, and quickly took to the company’s distinct culture. “We were very square,” he recounted in a 2010 interview. “We wore the blue suits, white shirts with button-down collars, striped ties, fedoras and wingtip shoes.” That image came to stand for something: “The customers felt they could count on us.”
Samuel J. Palmisano, who had earlier in his career served as Akers’ executive assistant and who later became IBM's 8th CEO, describes Akers as the ultimate company man — loyal to the company he loved. “People liked John Akers, because they knew he cared about them — as employees, as people, and as IBMers," Palmisano said. “John was so committed to the institution and its culture."
Akers was one of the builders of the modern IBM. After getting a business degree from Yale University and serving as a carrier pilot in the U.S. Navy from 1956 to 1960, he began his IBM career as a sales trainee. For his first three years as a salesman, his territory was Vermont—where his first major sale was to a dairy association. A major break came a few years later, in 1971, when he was assigned to corporate headquarters to be the executive assistant to Frank Cary, who was then a senior vice president and who ultimately became the company’s CEO. Akers recalled later that working for Cary was the equivalent of getting an MBA, and he said he learned so much that was useful to him for the rest of his career.
This was the era when IBM was emerging as the most successful company in the nascent computer industry. The System/360 computer family, which was released in 1964, revolutionized the industry by offering clients a series of computers suited for different size businesses that ran the same software. As a sales person and later as an executive, Akers helped make System/360 and its successor, System/370, huge successes.
A top performer, he received 16 promotions in a span of 23 years. He was named president of the Data Processing Division, then IBM's largest domestic marketing unit, in 1974 at age 39. He became president of the entire company in 1982 and chief executive in 1985. After an eight-year tenure as CEO, he retired from IBM in 1993.
People who worked for Akers call him a thoughtful leader who made sure people knew what was expected of them and helped them meet the goals he set. Retired IBM executive Nicholas M. Donofrio recalls the time in 1988 when Akers sent him to Austin, Texas, to complete the development of long-overdue Unix workstations and servers, which were based on a new microprocessor architecture. Three months later, Donofrio reported back to Akers that it would take another nine months to deliver the products. “He had every reason to fire me,” recounts Donofrio. “Instead, he asked what additional resources I needed and agreed to meet with me monthly to insure we made the new schedule. He did, I did, and we did.” Ultimately the new product line, called the RS6000, became an important part of IBM’s product portfolio.
As IBM’s centennial approached in 2011, Akers expressed satisfaction in what the company—and he—had accomplished. “Many things have changed over the years but the values of IBM then and the values of IBM today are what we have built on successfully all of these years,” he said. “It continues to result in the best value and solution for the customer.”