February 7, 2011

CEO of IBM kicks off yearlong lecture series at his alma mater

Sam Palmisano, Class of '73, former Johns Hopkins trustee, spoke at Gilman Hall to begin his company's 100th anniversary celebration

Sam Palmisano, the chairman and chief executive officer of IBM, and a 1973 graduate and former trustee of Johns Hopkins, returned to his alma mater last week to launch a yearlong lecture series celebrating his company’s 100th anniversary.

In a speech in Homewood’s Gilman Hall, Palmisano, who grew up in Baltimore and attended Calvert Hall before graduating from JHU and beginning his IBM career in the city, spoke of the company’s longevity and its ability to continually change its products.

“We started off making clocks, scales and cheese slicers,” Palmisano told an audience that included university leaders, students and faculty. “After that it’s a blur: typewriters, magnetic tape, the first disk drive, the memory chip, ATMs, mainframes, mini-computers, personal computers, supercomputers.”

Palmisano’s speech was the inaugural event in IBM’s Centennial Lecture Series, which the company plans to take to leading universities around the world. The lecture series centers on the culture of business and managing for the long term, and how those two themes have shaped IBM’s impact on business and society.

In introducing Palmisano, university President Ronald J. Daniels likened the chief executive’s success and rise through IBM’s ranks to his days as a student and football player at Johns Hopkins. He played center, by the way.

“I was reminded that even from Sam’s early days on campus, he managed the multitasking demanded of a successful leader,” Daniels said.

Daniels cited Palmisano’s vision, leadership and respect for his company’s century-old tradition of thinking broadly, creatively and critically.

“As we all know, many of the once-mighty titans of American business history have not been able to innovate to survive,” Daniels said. “IBM is, of course, a notable exception to the laws of the ruthless corporate jungle.”

Palmisano, a gregarious man who arrived in Gilman’s Marjorie M. Fisher Hall sporting a yellow Johns Hopkins tie, spoke about his company’s long history of innovation. Even when technologies shift and when the global economy moves to a fundamentally different basis through multiple generations of products, markets and people, IBM, he said, has remained faithful to itself.

“It’s about how you bottle up what makes an organization distinctive—what makes Walmart, Walmart; what makes Apple, Apple; for that matter, what makes Johns Hopkins, Johns Hopkins,” Palmisano said.