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Kevin Maney: The Maverick and His Machine [elan magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
elan magazine

“Thomas Watson Sr. appeared to me in a dream,” writes Kevin Maney in the introduction to “The Maverick and His Machine,” his recently published book about the charismatic, irascible founder of IBM. “In his powerful voice, clearing his throat as usual every couple of words, he said, ‘It is your fate that you should write about me.”’

“Well, okay, maybe not,” Kevin concedes. “But a series of actual events stopped just short of a phantom visit from one of the greatest business leaders of the 20th century. At times, it seemed like some force steered me to this book, much the way an invisible hand always guided Wile E. Coyote to stand precisely under the falling anvil.”

It is with such humor, a reverence for his subject and a strong sense of business history that Kevin crafted the 446-page tome that hit bookstore shelves in April 2003. Published by John Wiley & Son, The Maverick and His Machine is the USA Today technology reporter’s second book.

The first, “Megamedia Shakeout: The Inside Story of the Leaders and the Losers in the Exploding Communications Industry,” was published by Wiley in 1995.

His first book was a hit with critics, but with Maverick, the Clifton author seems to have found universal acceptance.

“Corporate hagiography rings hollow in this current climate of accounting scandals and languish in stock prices,” wrote the Books & Art section reviewer at The Economist. “So here is a welcome antidote from a former age: the story of how Thomas Watson turned an obscure vendor of tabulating equipment into the world’s largest computer company. Unlikely as it seems, the story is a genuine page turner, thanks to the unprecedented access that Kevin Maney was given to IBM’s archives.”

Spencer Ante, a BusinessWeek reporter who covers IBM from New York, concurs: “Maney uses this treasure trove to provide one of the most complete and lively accounts of an industrialist who helped pioneer the information-technology industry and created an institution that changed the world.”

The reviewers’ references to “unprecedented access” hint at the secret behind the book’s intimate access to Watson.

The 43-year-old author, it turns out, grew up in Binghamton, New York, just miles from IBM’s original headquarters in Endicott. He had a few uncles and several friends who worked for IBM, but what proved most useful was the fact that Kevin’s mother spent years as the secretary to a wealthy gent named Robert Schumann, a grandson of A. Ward Ford—an old friend of Watson. He was also a major shareholder of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (C-T-R), the firm that eventually became IBM.

Schumann had scrapbooks insightful stories to tell, for his grandfather was also on the search committee that hired Watson after he was let go by National Cash Register (NCR), his previous employer. As Kevin tells it, Watson was a rising star at NCR and was put in charge of a used cash register operation to undercut secondhand register shops.

However, in 1912, the Taft Administration cracked down on antitrust schemes and in 1913 found 29 NCR employees, including Watson, guilty of violating antitrust law. Kevin says he believes the executive spent the rest of his career trying to shake die conviction and prove he could build a successful business.

This insight, as well as many others peppered throughout the book, comes from the fact that since 1982 Kevin had been covering IBM as a business reporter—first for the Binghamton Evening Press, then for the Westchester Rockland Newspapers, a Gannett-owned publication based down the road from IBM’s world headquarters in Armonk. In 1985, he was hired to work in the Northern Virginia headquarters of Gannett, at what was then the newly started USA Today, and continued covering the vicissitudes of IBM.

In 2000, after nearly two decades following Big Blue, Kevin got it into his head that he wanted to write a book about Watson Sr. But could he gain real access? He didn’t know.

So he called on Rob Watson, IBM’s vice president of media relations to see if there might a closer in IBM somewhere that might house some of Watson’s letters or memos.

“He said four words that I will always remember: ‘Funny you should ask,”’ recalls Kevin, who learned that just months before the company had discovered 340 boxes stacked in a Kingston, NY warehouse. They were filled with notes from Watson’s business meetings, letters to his children, telegrams from presidents, even lists of belongings in his house—and most intriguing—internal memos (some scathing) to IBM’s vice presidents and engineers.

“It was as if the hand of Watson dropped me down into the situation at exactly the right moment,” explains Kevin, who spent months traveling to New York to sit at an old oak boardroom table once used by Watson and pore over the contents of those boxes. By the spring of 2001, he had collected a mountain of papers, filled notebooks with facts, and was ready to … well, take a break.

Although Kevin already had a publisher in Wiley, he couldn’t quite figure out how to organize that information. So he rented a beach condo in Maryland from a colleague, gathered all those papers and notebooks, and from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day, sorted his data into piles that seemed to fit into chapters.

Two weeks later, Kevin emerged with in outline. Eschewing his home office, where his family might prove too distracting, he rented a small space above the City Square Tavern in Old Town Manassas. Within a year, Kevin reduced those piles into the pages that became his critically acclaimed book.

“I came to really like Watson as a subject,” Maney says today. “He was larger than life, like a character a fiction writer would invent. But I wouldn’t have wanted to work for him. Yes, he was often gm to his employees. He built an employee school and country dub and lavished rewards on top executives. But those highest up in the company had to submit their personal egos to him. I couldn’t have done that.”

Now that the project is complete, the author admits to being slightly disoriented.

“There’s a sense of emotional spent-ness,” he says. “I call this the Great Exhale period. Sometimes I wake up and feel relieved that the book is finished. Other days I wake up and am really bummed that it is done. It’s a bit of a roller coaster.”

Of course, Kevin is still promoting Maverick at business schools and speaking in other forums throughout the country.

As for what’s next, Kevin says he has plenty of technology columns to write for USA Today, and he’s glad he has more time to spend with his kids, Alison and Sam, to whom Maverick is dedicated. He is confident more books will follow. As for what, how, and when he’ll approach his next topic—well, he says, that’s another story.

2008 UPDATE: Last summer, Kevin Maney was hired away from USA Today by Portfolio magazine and is now its Tech Observer columnist. He is also writing another book, The Fidelity Swap.

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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