FATHER SON & CO.

My Life at IBM and Beyond

By Thomas J. Watson Jr. and Peter Petre

Bantam. 468 pp. $22.95

THE MAN Fortune magazine once called "the most successful capitalist in history" gazes out from the cover photograph of this book, the very model of what a 76-year-old board chairman emeritus of IBM should look like -- neatly groomed and impeccably tailored. Not a hint here of the terrible Watson temper, the irascible father, the nasty sibling rivalry, the hesitant way in which IBM entered the computer business (1989 sales: $62.7 billion).

The junior Watson has quite a story to tell, and it must be said it's a good one. No doubt the same persons who bought Lee Iacocca's bestselling autobiography will purchase this one, eager to absorb the principal author's prescriptions for business success. They won't be disappointed. Father Son & Co. assuredly contains its share of Dale Carnegie pieties and banalities and common sense, all mixed up. It's also an exciting history of the rise of the American computer industry, written from a unique perspective. But this surprisingly candid book has another dimension. It's about love, about learning how to love.

"This is the story of my father and myself, of my years alone at IBM's helm, and of what I've done since leaving the company. Father and I played out our rivalry and our love for each other in the great American business that he created. I helped build it and then left it behind me twenty years ago. Along the way I learned a great deal about power, being subject to it, striving for it, inheriting it, wielding it, and letting it go."

So forget the public image of scientific corporate management and read about Terrible Tommy Watson, the brat who put skunk juice into the heating ducts of Short Hills Country Day School. See the rich kid party through the Depression and barely avoid flunking out of Brown. Meet the boss's son who was given Wall Street as his first sales territory. And salute the boy colonel in the Army Air Force who got a plum assignment after his old man personally intervened with Gen. George Marshall.

There's another side to this ledger. If Tom Watson Jr. was a child of privilege, he also flew some of the most hazardous missions in the 1941-45 war -- over the Himalayas from India to supply the Chinese and across Siberia from Alaska to ferry Lend Lease bombers to the Red Air Force. (Once, over Baku, he almost lost a leg when he became pinned in a landing gear assembly.) It took a world war and mortal danger to restore young Tom's self-esteem, psychically battered by a father who was at once overbearing and indulgent.

Thomas Watson Sr. was a monomaniacal salesman who got his start peddling pianos, caskets and cash registers, and then lucked into tabulating machines, electric typewriters and punch-card machines. The latter could perform four additions a second, a revolution. Dad's idea of a good time was to drag the 13-year-old son to a sales banquet, there to gladhand each of the 400 blue-suited guests who might have started their day by singing, "With Mr. Watson leading/ To greater heights we'll rise/ And keep our IBM/ Respected in all eyes." A legend in his own time, Watson pe`re came out of that remarkable school for peddlers and tinkers that existed in Dayton, Ohio, at the turn of the century; graduates included the Wright brothers and the redoubtable John Patterson, chief of the National Cash Register Co. Patterson's prescription for outselling the competition was simple: "The best way to kill a dog is to cut off its head."

The senior Watson collected autographed pictures of important people he scarcely knew and kept them on a grand piano in his living room (Mussolini's disappeared in time). His own photograph was in every IBM office in the world, and he had the longest entry in Who's Who in America, a well-padded 16 1/2 inches. He gave a white electric typewriter to the pope and conceived two famous slogans, "Think" and "World Peace Through World Trade." He didn't let go of the reins at IBM until he was 82 and on the verge of critical illness, in 1956. The son was then 42. At about the same time, IBM was collecting rent on 300,000 punch-card machines of one sort or another -- what businessmen call a cash cow. Watson Jr. puts it more precisely, "Year after year, we were making twenty-seven cents, pre-tax, on every dollar of revenue."

In the early 1950s, the potential of electronic data processing began to become evident. IBM dipped its toes in the future by building computers for the U.S. Air Force, enormous, dinosaur-like contraptions. Even with their thousands of vacuum tubes and primitive circuitry, they could perform 5,000 additions a second. Say goodbye to "Do not fold, spindle or mutilate."

The father ran IBM for 42 years, the son for 15. Imagine the son's satisfaction in surpassing the father's achievement. Thomas Watson Jr. led IBM into mainframes, circuit boards, silicon chips, disk drives and all the other apparatus whose names trip off our tongues so blithely today. It wasn't at all easy; IBM's engineers were reluctant at first to recognize the superiority of transistors to vacuum tubes. The company's growth sounds like a real roller-coaster ride: "We grew so fast that some years we had to cope with the problem of training twenty thousand or more new employees."

A heart attack in 1971 caused the son to kick himself upstairs. An ardent supporter of Robert Kennedy, he takes pains to demonstrate a social conscience. Jimmy Carter appointed him ambassador to Russia, a homecoming of sorts for this World War II flyer, though his term in Moscow was a disappointment because of the invasion of Afghanistan and the consequent souring of Soviet-American relations. Now, fortunate man, he sails the world on a 54-foot yawl.

To be sure, there are some loose ends in Father Son & Co. The federal government's immensely complex antitrust suit against IBM, dropped by the Reagan administration, is presented largely as a hot potato thrown by outgoing attorney general Ramsey Clark to embarrass the incoming Nixon administration. The assertion, "It was the Cold War that helped IBM make itself the undisputed king of the computer business," seems more telling than the twaddle about how well the company's salesmen understood its products. Similarly, the statement that "We made very little money on the {Korean War} project, in keeping with the policy against war profiteering laid down by Dad. But it enabled us to build highly automated factories ahead of anybody else, and to train thousands of new workers in electronics" seems less than straightforward.

Clearly both father and son's first love was the firm. Family came second. How both men realized in time the futility of that priority makes a winning story. You don't end up loving Thomas Watson Jr., but you surely will respect and maybe even like him.

Reid Beddow is an assistant editor of Book World.