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John F. Akers, at 79; led IBM as PCS took bite out of mainframe business

Mr. Akers was born in Boston and was a graduate of Needham High School.

New York Times/1989

Mr. Akers was born in Boston and was a graduate of Needham High School.

NEW YORK — John F. Akers, the chief executive and chairman of IBM during a turbulent time when the rise of the personal computer undercut the profitability of the mainframe computer business, died Friday in Boston. He was 79.

His death was confirmed Saturday by Edward Barbini, a spokesman for IBM, who said the cause was a stroke.

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Mr. Akers, a former Navy pilot, excelled in IBM’s insular, clean-cut culture, beginning as a sales trainee in San Francisco and rising to become, in 1985, the sixth chief executive of the company. The next year, he added the role of chairman.

But as he took the helm, IBM was struggling. Smaller, more powerful machines using less expensive technology were chipping away at the mainframe computer business that had once been highly lucrative.

That led Mr. Akers to push IBM to change its course, including pursuing a reorganization that would have divided the huge company into more than a dozen independent businesses, some competing with one another. He said those divisions could be more nimble outside the company’s notorious bureaucracy.

“John Akers clearly understood that the future of IBM was much more in software and services than in hardware and that the current company had to be pared down,” said David B. Yoffie, a professor at Harvard Business School, who interviewed Mr. Akers several times for a case study.

Yet Yoffie said Mr. Akers held on to IBM’s mind-set of the 1970s and ’80s, when the company was seen as one of the world’s great corporate successes, where employees could expect stable careers and lifetime employment. Because of that, Yoffie said, he did not lay off people, trying instead to trim the payroll through milder measures, such as offering older workers financial incentives to retire.

“His background and mentality made it impossible for him to do what his successor, Lou Gerstner, an outsider, did 18 months later,” Yoffie said. “He was going way too slowly.”

In 1993, he was pressured to step down after IBM reported its largest yearly loss. By May of that year, he had left the company.

Mr. Akers also served on the boards of several major corporations, including PepsiCo, Hallmark, and W.R. Grace & Co. His tenure on the board of directors of The New York Times Co., from 1985 to 2006, made him one of its longest-serving members. He was also a trustee of the California Institute of Technology, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and United Way.

John Fellows Akers was born Dec. 28, 1934, in Boston. A graduate of Needham High School, he received a business degree from Yale University, where he was an all-Ivy League hockey player. (In 2001, Yale awarded him the George H.W. Bush Lifetime of Leadership Award.)

He enlisted in the Navy after graduation, serving as a carrier pilot and ascending to the rank of lieutenant by the time he left in 1960.

After his sales training, Mr. Akers’s first assignment at IBM was as a salesman in Vermont (his first big customer: a dairy association).

In 1971, he moved to the company’s headquarters in Armonk, N.Y., becoming the executive assistant to Frank T. Cary, a senior vice president and future chief executive. One of Mr. Akers’s own executive assistants, Samuel J. Palmisano, would also one day lead the company.

The promotion set Mr. Akers on a trajectory to climb rapidly into the executive ranks, becoming president of the data processing division in 1974 and IBM’s president in 1983.

He leaves his wife of 54 years, Susan Davis Akers; a son, Scott; two daughters, Pamela Sjodin and Annie Klyver; and 10 grandchildren.

In a 2010 interview for a corporate publication, Mr. Akers described IBM, where he worked for 33 years, as “very square.” But, he said, he identified with that.

“We wore the blue suits, white shirts with button-down collars, striped ties, fedoras, and wingtip shoes,” Mr. Akers said. “The customers felt they could count on us.”

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