As the eldest son of the president of International Business Machines, Thomas Watson Jr. grew up tortured by self-doubt. He suffered bouts of depression and once burst into tears over the thought that his formidable father wanted him to join IBM and eventually run what was already a significant company. "I can't do it," he wailed to his mother. "I can't go to work for IBM."
Yet 26 years later, Watson not only succeeded his father but also would eventually surpass him. IBM is now synonymous with computers, even though the company did not invent the device that would change our life, nor had it shipped a single computer before Tom Jr. took over.
But he boldly took IBM--and the world--into the computer age, and in the process developed a company whose awesome sales and service savvy and dark-suited culture stood for everything good and bad about corporate America. No wonder the Justice Department sought (unsuccessfully) to break it up.
Under Tom Jr., Big Blue put its logo on 70% of the world's computers and so thoroughly dominated the industry that even rivals like Univac--which built the first large commercial computer--were dismissed as merely part of "the Bunch." And while newcomers such as Compaq and Microsoft brought the company to its knees in the 1980s, the colossus that Watson inherited and reinvented in the 1950s and '60s stands strong again today, the sixth largest U.S. company.
Not a bad legacy for someone who spent his youth "convinced that I had something missing" inside. A perpetually failing student, "Terrible Tommy" Watson vented his frustration by pulling pranks and tangling with authority. He needed six years and three schools to get through high school, and managed to graduate from Brown University only through the forbearance of a sympathetic dean. The young playboy rated the pleasures of drinking and dancing far above those of learning.
Watson enrolled in IBM sales school after college and hated that as well. He devoted more time to indulging his passions for flying airplanes by day and partying by night than to calling on clients. Even so, Watson filled his entire sales quota for 1940 on the first day of that year--but only because the company had thrown the boss's son a big account to make him look good.
World War II liberated Tom Watson Jr. from his demons. His success in promoting the use of flight simulators earned him a job as aide and pilot for Major General Follett Bradley, the Army Air Forces' inspector general. Watson flew throughout Asia, Africa and the Pacific, displaying steel nerves and shrewd foresight and planning skills. He was set to fly for United Air Lines after the war when a chance conversation with Bradley changed his course. Informed of Watson's job plans, the general said, "Really? I always thought you'd go back and run the IBM company." A stunned Watson asked Bradley if he really thought his former aide up to the job. The general replied, "Of course."