How will history judge outgoing IBM chief executive Lou Gerstner? An analysis of the Gerstner years at IBM reveals that the company's growth over the period was the most anaemic in its history.
Annual growth of 3.2 per cent was even less than that achieved by his demonised predecessor John Akers, who led the company to eke out growth of 4.5 per cent during his tenure.
Also bear in mind that Akers was in charge during the recession of the early 1990s while Gerstner was at the helm during the boom years of the PC and the internet.
For those with longer memories, the two chief executives prior to Akers, John Opel and Frank Cary, oversaw double-digit growth.
Gerstner, who earlier this week announced that he would stand down as chief executive on 1 March and as chairman at the end of the year, also oversaw the majority of layoffs, which saw IBM's workforce slashed by nearly 190,000 by the mid-1990s.
The layoffs returned Big Blue to profitability but were unable to help the company grow during the industry's hottest economy. Earlier this month, IBM announced that 2001 total revenues were $85.9bn, a decline of three per cent from 2000.
Despite the company's sales shortcomings, the fact that Gerstner was able to return IBM to profit has earned him the reputation as the man who saved the company and has made him an icon in US business circles.
The Gerstner years have been a goldmine for two groups of people: the shareholders, which of course include many IBM employees and ex-employees; and the Wall Street brokerages.
Over the nine years that Gerstner was at the helm, IBM's share price increased around 770 per cent and investors have not seen the share price tumble recently as have other buyers of hi-tech stocks.
IBM closed on Thursday (31 January) at $107.89, down just over 10 per cent from its 52-week high of $126.39.
During Gerstner's reign Big Blue spent $44bn buying back shares, which the company said was to demonstrate its long-term faith in the business.
This money went to Wall Street brokerages and banks which have been, perhaps not surprisingly, big supporters of the company despite its poor growth record.
IBM watcher and Gerstner critic Bob Djurdjevic, president of Annex Research, believes those billions should have been spent on investing in new businesses to generate growth.
He described the buybacks as little more than a bribe to Wall Street to keep a 'buy' rating on the company's shares. "Analysts at the investment banks keep singing IBM's praises, although the facts are dismal," said Djurdjevic.
But other analysts see positive results from the Gerstner years. Brian Jeffries, of International Technology Group, said: "Far more important than turning the company around was that he sent it in a new direction.
"Among his principal achievements was understanding that IBM is a mix of different businesses, and putting emphasis much more on services and software."
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