Obituary: John Fellows Akers / Oversaw IBM during move to PCs

Dec. 28, 1934 - Aug. 22, 2014

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John Fellows Akers, chief executive officer at IBM for eight years during the company’s struggle to shift to the personal computer era from the mainframe, died Friday in Boston. He was 79.

The cause was a stroke, IBM spokesman Ed Barbini wrote in an email.

A former U.S. Navy pilot, Mr. Akers joined IBM in 1960 as a sales trainee and in his 33-year career held jobs including executive assistant to Frank Cary, who would become CEO; president of the data-processing division; and president of the company before becoming CEO in 1985.

One of his executive assistants was Samuel Palmisano, who also later became CEO. He described Mr. Akers in IBM’s statement as the ultimate company man and “so committed to the institution and its culture.”

In sales and executive roles, Mr. Akers is credited with helping elevate and sustain IBM’s dominance of the mainframe- computer business, through pushing the adoption of the System/​360 and successor machines.

As CEO, he oversaw the company at a challenging time, as the rise of the personal computer and corporate bureaucracy led to financial difficulties at the Armonk, New York-based company.

IBM had lost $7.83 billion in two years when the company’s board convinced Louis Gerstner, who was chairman of RJR Nabisco Holdings Corp., to succeed Mr. Akers. Mr. Gerstner, who was IBM’s first CEO appointed from outside the company, slashed thousands of jobs and cut $7 billion in costs.

IBM’s shares, which had lost half their value in the two years before Mr. Gerstner arrived, rose ninefold from when he took over as CEO through the announcement in 2002 that Mr. Palmisano would be the new chief executive.

Mr. Palmisano said in the IBM statement said Mr. Akers was loyal to the company.

“People liked John Akers, because they knew he cared about them — as employees, as people, and as IBMers,” Mr. Palmisano said, according to the statement.

Mr. Akers was born Dec. 28, 1934, in Boston. He received a business degree from Yale in 1956. In 2011, Mr. Akers said he was satisfied with what he 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, according to IBM’s statement. “It continues to result in the best value and solution for the customer.”

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