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Newest IBM chief fulfills promise of Baltimore days


International Business Machines Corp. named as its new chief executive officer yesterday Samuel J. Palmisano, a Baltimore native who was a scholar-athlete at Calvert Hall College High School and the Johns Hopkins University before rising through the ranks at the world's leading computer hardware company.

Palmisano, 50, has for the past year been regarded as the leading candidate to succeed IBM's retiring chief executive, Louis V. Gerstner Jr.

Yesterday, IBM's board of directors elected Palmisano to take the post March 1. Palmisano, who has been the company's president and chief operating officer, will remain president.

He lives in Southport, Conn., with his wife, Gaier, known as "Missy," three sons and a daughter. In a survey conducted by a computer news service several years ago, Palmisano responded that his favorite way to relieve stress was being with his family, his favorite movie at the time was The American President and the one thing he'd change about himself was to be more patient.

"He's a terrific guy, a salt-of-the-earth character," William R. Brody, president of the Johns Hopkins University, said of Palmisano, a member of Hopkins' board of trustees. "If you met him outside of IBM, he wouldn't be one of the guys you would think would be heading one of the largest corporations in the world. But he's obviously very focused and very strategic. I suspect if you work for him, you wouldn't want to miss your numbers."

Palmisano joined IBM as a sales representative in Baltimore in 1973. He began to rise through the ranks after becoming executive assistant to John F. Akers, then chief executive, in 1989. After working for IBM in Asia in the early 1990s, he returned to the company's mammoth Armonk, N.Y., headquarters.

He received acclaim for his leadership of the company's global services division, a bright spot for IBM as it ceded the consumer side of the 1990s computer revolution to Microsoft Corp. and others. While Palmisano led the 135,000- employee Global Services unit, its revenues nearly tripled to $32.2 billion.

At age 44, Palmisano became the youngest member of the company's executive committee in 1997. He became president in 2000.

'A guy who is ready'

"This company has never been stronger than it is today. I have got a guy who is ready," Gerstner, 59, said of his successor last night on business cable news network CNBC. "IBM needs to change all of the time. He is a change agent, that is why I have picked him."

IBM's stock closed down $5.15, or 4.8 percent, yesterday to $103.

"You will see [IBM] continue to focus on where we have been winning," said Palmisano, interviewed on the same show. The company will "keep our heads down and work with our customers," he pledged.

Son of a South Baltimore auto mechanic, Palmisano graduated in 1969 with honors from Calvert Hall, as did his father in 1934 and an older brother, Domenic, who later died of a heart attack. As a senior football player, Sam Palmisano won the school's scholar-athlete award.

He also played in a band that entertained at Calvert Hall dances. Palmisano has often told friends one of his great thrills was opening for the Temptations when they played at the Towson parochial school.

"He was a very strong student," recalled Brother Kevin Stanton, principal of Calvert Hall, who taught him chemistry as a junior. "He was the center on our football team, a spot usually reserved for somebody with a lot of smarts."

Classmates recalled Palmisano similarly to the way he's described at IBM: smart, with a good sense of humor, but low-key.

"Sam was a little brighter than everyone; it came easier for him," said John Daue, a Calvert Hall classmate and now an executive with an area beer distributor. "He had a lot of aspirations; you just knew he was going to be successful."

'A renaissance guy'

Another classmate, Bill Whitty, recalled Palmisano as "a renaissance guy, popular with girls. He was one of the real smart guys, but not a nerd. He was one of the kind of guys who would give you his homework if you needed it."

When Whitty wrote to congratulate Palmisano on his being named president of IBM in 2000, Palmisano responded in a note: "I miss you guys."

Donald P. Forgione of Ellicott City, a Calvert Hall classmate, recalled students in an English class pretending a wire was stretched across the doorway floor. When Palmisano entered the room, he pretended to trip over it - and the class broke up.

"I didn't think he would be the head of IBM, not with that sense of humor," Forgione said.

At Hopkins, Palmisano was captain of the football team as a senior. Teammates recalled his intensity and a strong individual streak, evidenced by his joining a fraternity different from the other jocks.

Jim Ferguson, a football co-captain with Palmisano who grew up in Philadelphia, recalled Palmisano's invitations to his Northwood home for dinner to get a break from Ferguson's cooking in the apartment they shared with a few other Hopkins students.

"I remember his mother would cook me a steak," said Ferguson, now an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school. "They were a nice middle-class family who lived in a modest split-level home."

"He would be the first guy in the locker room for every football game," recalled Les Matthews, chief of orthopedic surgery at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore and a college teammate of Palmisano's.

'Intense' on the field

Matthews recalled that the squad's running joke was whether Palmisano or Ferguson "would have the biggest scowl and the most smoke coming out of their ears before a game because they were very intense individuals."

Denny Cox, who coached Palmisano his junior and senior years at Hopkins, recalled the 6-foot-2 205-pounder as an intense competitor who "liked to get all the players together and get them in a frenzy to play the game."

Cox said Palmisano was the second-best center he ever coached, after a player named Wayne Mulligan, who had a long career in the National Football League and played with Joe Namath in New York.

"There are some players who you look at and say that guy has tremendous natural ability, but the question is, does he or does he not live up to his ability?" said Jay Lenrow, a Baltimore attorney and another former Hopkins teammate. "Sam was one of those gutsy players who consistently impressed people by playing above everyone's expectations."

As Palmisano rose at IBM, he was considered a personable executive, but extremely driven and focused.

'Passionate' executive

"I recall him coming to Raleigh and gathering all the people in the cafeteria. He had a real engaging manner. You could tell this guy was passionate about what he was doing, but it was not yell-and-scream," said Jerry Baird, chief executive of a computer-training company in Texas who worked at IBM's personal computer unit in North Carolina. "Dell Computer was eating our lunch on the PC side, but it went from being a bleeding eyesore in the company to finding its way" under Palmisano, he said.

Said Tom Blaney, another high school teammate: "He was a great guy, a fantastic guy, just a great personality and very intelligent. I'm not surprised that he's done well, but for anybody to get that far, it's unbelievable."

Blaney last saw Palmisano a few years ago at a Calvert Hall reunion and was pleased that success had not changed him.

"He'll never change," Blaney said.

Sun staff writers Michael Hill, Bill Atkinson and Bill Free contributed to this article.

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