The Black Sheep of the Family: Thomas Watson Jr.ís Early Years

When Thomas Watson Jr. stepped into his father’s shoes as president of IBM in 1952, he knew they would be hard ones to fill. Until not long before, Watson Jr.’s life had consisted in large part of drinking and partying. IBM had always been a part of his life, but only in the context of his father’s job. Was he ready to take the reins of this multinational company? Could he break out from his father’s shadow and create his own legacy?

Indeed, Watson Jr. would not only create his own unique legacy as a businessman, but he would go on to become named as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Under his leadership, IBM’s revenues tripled and the company experienced a rate of growth that few other companies can rival even today.

Thomas John Watson Jr. was born on January 14, 1914, in Dayton, Ohio. At the time, his father, Thomas Watson Sr., had just been fired from the National Cash Register Company. Of all his three siblings, it was perhaps Watson Jr. who had the most erratic relationship with their father. “My father and I had terrible fights,” said Watson Jr. “He seemed like a blanket that covered everything. I really wanted to beat him but also make him proud of me.”

In his teenage years, Watson Jr. began to suffer from depression. As a result, and also partly due to his undiagnosed dyslexia, he struggled to get through school. After being accepted into Brown University only as a favour to his prominent father, Watson received his business degree in 1937. Immediately upon graduating, Watson went to work for his father’s growing company, IBM. He had little interest in the job but was unsure of what to do with his life. It wasn’t until World War II that Watson would find his calling.

He enlisted in the Army Air Force and served as a pilot, chauffeuring top military leaders around the USSR – and learning Russian in the meantime. In later years, Watson Jr. would recall how easily piloting came to him and how for the first time ever he had confidence in his abilities. He admitted to journalists that if he could have followed the one career path he would have really liked to, it would have been piloting.

It had been the suggestion of one of the army generals he had befriended during his service that Watson Jr. try to follow in the steps of his father. So, after the war, Watson Jr. did just that and returned to work at IBM. He was promptly promoted to Vice President after just six months, and placed on IBM’s board of directors four months after that. After three years with IBM, Watson Jr. had become the company’s Executive Vice-President, a position he would hold for another three years until 1952.

It was in that year that Watson Sr. decided his eldest son was ready; no amount of additional grooming or training would prepare him for his next challenge. In 1952, Watson Sr. stepped aside and appointed his son as the new president of IBM.

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