Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., senior adviser to The Carlyle Group, in his New York… (Bill O'Leary/The Washington…)
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.
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. He bristles at the notion he retired.
“I don’t use that word,” he said. He prefers “portfolio life.”
“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, the accouterments from three decades in corporate life abound. A framed 1996 Businessweek hailing him as a Top Manager hangs on the wall. 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 him and former China president Jiang Zemin, a friend.
Another picture says: “Four Kinds Of People: Those who make things happen; Those to whom things happen; Those who watch things happen; Those who don’t even know things are happening.”
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 on his “portfolio life.”
This conversation was edited for length and clarity:
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.
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.
Had you planned for life after IBM?
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. I had these things in my life. I needed to spend more time on them.
There were some new things I wanted to do. I wanted to go back to school. I wanted to go back and read Chinese history. I wanted to go back and read archaeology.
What form did the planning take?
It’s sort of like you got a mainstream thing that you’re doing, but you’re bringing these other things alongside. IBM, CEO of a huge company. You get off that train. You’ve got to invest some of yourself in preparation for retirement and in carrying it out when you finish.
This has got to be in place before you retire. It’s not mechanical. You can’t just retire and say, “Okay, I’ll go on some boards” or “I’ll go do something else.” That’s empty. You’ve got to care about certain needs, whether that’s education, your university.
You go become the chairman of the board of the university. Or you care about a hospital and become chairman.
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.
So your advice is?
That you need to think about this early in your career: “About 10 years from now, what do I want to spend my time on?”
Did you seek advice yourself before you retired about what to do in retirement?