Jack Kuehler, Former IBM President and Vice Chairman, Dies at 76
January 12, 2009 Timothy Prickett Morgan
It is not often when an engineer rises to the top ranks of a company, not even when that company makes electromechanical and then computing components, as IBM has done for nine decades now. But Jack Kuehler, a former president and vice chairman of the board at Big Blue, was one such man.
Kuehler died on December 20 of Parkinson’s disease, according to his obituary in the New York Times.
Kuehler was born in Nebraska, but he was very much part of the early Silicon Valley culture that exists in large part in that location, by the way, because Big Blue decided that a walnut grove outside of San Jose was a good place to put a disk drive factory and a research center. After graduating from Santa Clara University with a master’s degree in electrical engineering, Kuehler began his career at IBM as an associate engineer at the San Jose Research Lab in 1958, and rose through the R&D ranks at the company. He eventually ran the labs in Research Triangle Park, San Jose, and Menlo Park, and was then brought into the various operating divisions to control product development at the vice presidential level.
In 1978, when IBM formed the Systems Products Division (a mainframe unit that put research, development, manufacturing, and marketing under one umbrella), Kuehler was tapped to be president of the unit; two years later, he was named a vice president of all of IBM, and a senior vice president in 1982. By 1986, Kuehler was in charge of a substantial portion of R&D and manufacturing operations at the company and was named a member of the board. By 1988, when John Akers was at the helm as chairman of the board and chief executive officer, Kuehler was named vice chairman and a year later, president. He was the last IBMer to have the title of president as a standalone position, often one that led to the top jobs of chairman and CEO. But this is not, apparently, what Kuehler wanted. And when things got bad under Akers’ leadership, with the fall of the mainframe and the rise of the PC, Kuehler was often tarred with the same brush as Akers.
Kuehler was instrumental in some pretty big product decisions within IBM, of course, but also in other decisions that shaped the industry. When a memory chip maker called Intel fell on hard times as Asian memory makers took over the market, Kuehler convinced IBM to invest in the company and help it transition to microprocessors–chips that are the predecessors of those used inside PCs today and inside the vast majority of servers shipped these days, too. He was also a force behind the creation of Sematech, a government-funded initiative to shore up American chip making. Kuehler also managed the relationship between Microsoft and Big Blue for operating systems on the PC, including DOS and the ill-fated OS/2. Notably, when it became apparent in the early 1990s that Intel and Microsoft had assumed too much control of the desktop and an increasingly large part of the server space, Kuehler spearheaded the PowerPC chip and operating system alliance between IBM, Apple, and Motorola. While the PowerPC alliance did not give the X86 and X64 processors a run for the volume, the Power family of chips are nonetheless technically elegant and capable of doing much enterprise-class work. There have been many Power disappointments, to be sure. Such as the loss of Windows as a supported commercial operating system. But the effort has certainly yielded IBM more than its share of revenue and profits, and has kept Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, and Sun Microsystems, among other server chip makers, on their toes.
Kuehler is survived by his wife, Carmen, their five children, and their dozen grandchildren.