Lou Gerstner's role in popular IT mythology is as the saviour of IBM. He's the guy from the biscuit company who took charge of an ailing and increasingly irrelevant IT dinosaur.
In the greatest resurrection since Lazarus, Gerstner turned things around and made IBM matter all over again. That's the official version, anyway.
Last week, the great man's reputation took its first real battering when the company reported its fourth quarter and full year results for 1999. The numbers were not as bad as Wall Street had expected, but the overall trend across the third, and especially the fourth, quarters were downward in a number of key areas.
For example, end-user hardware such as enterprise systems saw an overall yearly growth of a respectable four per cent. But that masks some worrying zigzags - by the fourth quarter, the growth rate was 12 per cent down, compared with 23 per cent up in the second quarter.
Even high-growth sectors limped in disappointingly, with IBM's most profitable single division, Global Services, growing a paltry two per cent year-on-year.
The slack results mark seven years since IBM, that most conservative of companies, surprised the industry by going outside its corporate walls for the first time to find a new leader. More than that, it went beyond the IT industry itself to secure the services of Gerstner, then chief executive of RJR Nabisco. He was formerly a senior executive at American Express and management consultancy McKinsey.
On 1 April 1993, Gerstner took on what at the time looked a foolish mission and the most thankless task in IT. IBM was reporting net losses of $8 billion (£5 billion). Such was the feeling of panic within the firm that a plan was seriously considered to break it up into seven or eight smaller 'Baby Blues' in a pessimistic bid to maximise shareholder value.
Gerstner soon put a stop to that, recognising that IBM's value to its customers was to provide integrated offerings across product ranges. The company had been caught on the hop by the client-server revolution by clinging Canute-like to the mainframe.
He set out to ensure this didn't happen again, instigating strategic purchases such as Lotus Development and Tivoli Systems to extend the company's portfolio.
'The new new thing'
The question is, while Gerstner has stemmed the tide of red ink, has he identified 'the new new thing' that will fuel the next phase of growth? Publicly, he put a brave face on the droopy figures.
"We continue to believe that  can be a very good year for us," he insisted. But in private, he issued a somewhat starker warning in an internal communique to all IBM employees. "As I see it, we have two quarters - 180 days - to prove that the last half of 1999 was an aberration, not the beginning of a trend," he thundered.
The company pinned much of the blame for the downward trends on that old bugbear, Year 2000, and the resulting budget chill. "The bug was very real," insisted chief financial officer John Joyce. "Although we're past the most critical stage, we expect that lockdown to be lifted at different times by different customers."
To be fair, IBM has been warning about the millennium effect for a while. Late in 1999, Gerstner felt it necessary to issue some stern cautionary notes, to which Wall Street reacted badly.
Response from investors
This fresh warning has met with a mixed response from corporate investors. Credit Suisse cut back its predicted 2000 earnings per share and revenue figures for IBM, but Merrill Lynch upped its rating on the company.
Mark Lillicrop, research director at IBM watcher Xephon, thinks Gerstner is being overly pessimistic. "Year 2000 has hit all the vendors, but I think Gerstner overdid it about taking a couple of quarters to get over it. I'd see things picking up again by the end of the first three months of this year," he said."To Gerstner's credit, he's taking a cautionary view. But I thought he'd have been more guarded in what he said," he added.
The right man for the job?
If this is just a blip, questions linger. Gerstner has been a hero in US business. But is he the right man to lead the dot.com revolution? "He's not a personality leader. If you look at Microsoft and Oracle and Sun Microsystems, they have hugely outspoken personalities leading them," says Lillicrop.
"What the market and Wall Street see are visionary figures. Gerstner is a plain-speaking, honest spokesman for IBM. He is most comfortable in boardrooms, talking to chief executives. He is basically a management consultant."
Management consultants, however, while great at looking at a company and seeing what insiders can't recognise - what's broken and what works - aren't renowned for coming up with better mousetrap ideas. What IBM needs now is Gerstner the better biscuit marketeer, not the outsider consultant.
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