The first paragraph of every obituary on Louis V. Gerstner Jr. will reduce his life to “the man who saved IBM.”
Gerstner, one of the most accomplished chief executives of his time, knows this.
“That’s what I’m going to be known for no matter what else I do,” the 71-year-old said.
What he’d really like people to remember are his decades-long efforts to save U.S. education, to dramatically accelerate the understanding and treatment of disease and to solidify Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center as one of the world’s pre-eminent hospitals.
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Gerstner was born on Long Island, received a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Dartmouth College in 1963 and an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1965. He spent the next 37 years in the C-suites of iconic American brands, starting at management consultancy McKinsey & Co., then credit-card purveyor American Express, cookie maker RJR Nabisco and finishing at computer giant IBM.
He stepped off the corporate carousel in 2003. Then 61, Gerstner picked a successor and was out the door.
“The Holy Terror,” as Fortune once called him on its cover, occupies a 43rd-floor corner office at Carlyle Group’s New York office, which is located in an imposing Madison Avenue high-rise. In addition to a killer view of Central Park, there is a crystal glass from the Emir of Abu Dhabi near the window, photos with former secretaries of state Colin Powell and George Shultz, and one of Gerstner and former China president Jiang Zemin, a friend.
He wears a blue Oxford shirt that has the initials “LVG” on the breast pocket and a yellow print tie. He greets his guest with a hard, steady gaze and a firm handshake before launching into a rare interview (which has been edited here for length and clarity).
Q: Why did you retire at 61? It seems like a waste of talent to remove yourself from the private sector at such a relatively young age.
A: That’s an interesting view, that I’m wasting my time now. What I’m doing is more important to me than anything I’ve done in my life.
Retirement is not a word that ever applied to what I’m doing. I’m in another phase of my life. I never thought about “retiring.” You know, people who work for one company all their lives, and after 40 years I guess they have to do something else, I guess that’s retirement. But I’ve led an episodic life.
Q: Had you planned for life after IBM?
A: Absolutely. If you wait to think about what you’re going to do until you retire, I don’t think you’ve got a chance.
There were two or three things that I really cared a lot about that were part of my life for many decades, that I wanted to do more. One was fixing public education in America. I started working on that when I was 26.
I’ve been deeply involved in biomedical research for a long time. I was appointed to the National Cancer Institute board under Reagan. I’ve been on the Sloan-Kettering board since the mid-70s. I was on the Bristol-Myers Squibb board.
I had this full-time, 70-hour-a-week, 24-hour-a-day job, for almost 15 years between IBM and RJR Nabisco. That was enough. I wanted to do something different.
If you basically are a person that is driven almost entirely by power or wealth, you’re not going to have a post-CEO life. You’re going to stay as a CEO. You’re going to go out with your boots on.
Q: Why do CEOs fail at it (retirement)?
A: They don’t plan for it. It’s hard to plan for it. You’re working very hard as a CEO and all of a sudden you hit the stop mark (claps his hand), and it’s over.
If the answer is, “I want to stay in my job until I’m 90,” which is what some CEOs want, that’s fine. If you’re thinking that you want to stop and change and do something else, you’ve got to work at it early on.
Q: Did you have other job offers after you left IBM?
A: I was never offered the job, but I was asked if I would consider two very significant turnaround situations. My answer was “no.”
Q: What is the most difficult part of the transition after leaving as CEO of a major public company?
A: Not having all the people and the support. It would be nice to have more people to help on these nonprofit things.
It’s the cadence. The cadence of the business world is ever strong. Move forward. Every day you go in the office, maybe you only moved an inch. But everyone’s driving, driving, driving to get things done. There’s a huge focus on productivity, on measurement, on success, however short term it’s measured.
[Voice softens to a whisper.] You get into the nonprofit world, and the cadence is slow. It’s nonlinear. You get a little frustrated.
Q: And the pluses?
A: The hours drop, 70 to 35. Most important, the stress has gone from 100 to 10.
Q: How did you end up at Carlyle?
A: I get a call from David Rubenstein: “Would you be interested in becoming part of a private-equity firm?”
I had never thought about going into private equity. I didn’t know who David Rubenstein was. I had never heard of Carlyle, other than a hotel.
I took a step off the path I was on. I said, “You know what? These are fascinating people. They are doing interesting work. It keeps my hands in the business world.”
It keeps me in that cadence.
Q: What skills have you found most transferrable to your current life?
A: What effective CEOs can bring to the nonprofit world is the sense of organizational discipline, the sense of very thoughtful priority setting, focusing on execution. You know, “Now let’s figure out how we’re going to do this. Let’s get this done.”
Communications skills. How to reach out to constituencies and raise the level of awareness and support that comes from these institutions. Look here. [Picks up a pamphlet titled U.S. Education Reform and National Security.] If we don’t fix the teaching profession in America, our country is going to fail.
It doesn’t mean we don’t have great teachers. We have some great teachers. But we do not have enough great teachers. And they don’t get paid enough. There’s no accountability for results.
I had to bring some organizational skills. I had to go hire somebody to run this thing. I had to go find the people to be on the board. I had to raise the money. I had to meet with the woman we hired to be the executive director.
You have to self-actuate. You have to make these things happen. For me, that’s a lot of fun. But it’s also something that I cared about for a long time so it was easy to segue into it.
Q: How do you allocate your time?
A: The first thing I do is, I block out every Tuesday morning, because every Tuesday morning I go fishing. So, if Carlyle calls a meeting on Tuesday mornings, I’m not on the call.
Q: What do you fish for?
A: Anything. But mostly, light-tackle fish. I have a boat. I fish in Florida and I fish in Nantucket. Saltwater fishing. I also do other kinds of fishing. Salmon fishing. And bone fishing.
Then board meetings fill out my calendar. There are Sloan-Kettering board meetings. The Broad [Institute of MIT and Harvard] meetings, which are multiday. I’m the vice chairman of the Museum of Natural History. I teach in the IBM schools.
And then, I fill it out with reading.
Q: Why didn’t you carry out your plan to study Chinese and archaeology at Cambridge after going to the trouble of being accepted?
A: I discovered that I probably had to be at Cambridge for as much as six months at a time. They don’t have summer programs. I still may do it. I’m still an assistant professor and an associate professor at Jesus College.
Q: Are you just curious about archaeology and learning Chinese history?
A: Yes. Just curiosity.
Q: By retiring at 61, did you peak too early?
A: No. Because you are implicitly defining the CEO job as the peak. And the topography of my life is much flatter than that.
A lot of people would look at me and say, “Oh, he’s the old chairman of IBM. You know, he’s a has-been. Or he’s gone.”
I’m doing things that are really important to me that I’m having fun doing.