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Bright Blue

Linda Sanford '75 is taking on the demandsand opportunitiesof the Internet for IBM

By Phil Waga/The Journal News.
Copyright The Journal News, Nov. 8, 1999. Reprinted with permission.

Photograph by Jason Grow

She began her career at IBM Corp. in a job—and a division—that no longer exists. Her task 24 years ago: to develop simulation models to predict how much pounding IBM Selectric typewriters could take.   

Years later, Linda Sanford took on a job more challenging and more foreboding: to help resurrect the company’s mainframe computer division, once the cream of technology and a money-maker that could not be surpassed, and then floundering in mediocrity and suffering massive losses.   

Today, Sanford, one of the top female executives at IBM, as well as the country, has landed an assignment under a still more intense spotlight: to lead a sales force of 17,000 people who sell to the company’s 23,400 biggest clients and bring in about 70 percent of IBM’s $82 billion in revenue.   

As if that task was not quite enough, Sanford’s job is not to simply lead, but to change the course of the largest technological sales force in the country. As the Internet booms, IBM’s sales force does not have to persuade businesses of the benefits of electronic commerce—there’s no question about that these days—but must instead help Internet businesses thrive without detracting from traditional lines of revenue.

“It’s a gentle, important balancing act that you can never take for granted,” said Sanford, 46. She pointed out that these big-money, big-name companies, including DaimlerChrysler, Sony Corp., Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Charles Schwab Corp., can not behave like Internet start-ups by spending small mountains of money on development while ending year after year in the red. “That would not do for our customers,” Sanford says in her characteristic, low-key manner.   

Sanford’s blend of warmth and humor, along with technological and marketing savvy—a combination not common across IBM and corporate America—has brought her fans within IBM, as well as outside the company. Fellow IBM executives say she has a knack for getting the job done while making few enemies. Analysts say she’s very good at dividing her focus among the key qualities that make for good business, including product development and sales growth.   

Fortune magazine [in October] ranked Sanford as one of the 50 most powerful women in American business. Carly Fiorina, Hewlett-Packard’s new chief executive, led the list; Sanford, general manager of global industries, was No. 23, three notches ahead of Oprah Winfrey. At IBM Sanford is the second-highest ranking female executive, behind Abby Kohnstamm, senior vice president for marketing.

SANFORD GREW UP ON HER FAMILY’S 150-acre farm in Laurel, a small Long Island, N.Y., community. She was the oldest of five sisters, all of whom concentrated on math or science, and helped with chores around the farm. A graduate of St. John’s University, where she majored in math, she received a graduate degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in a rather novel subject, operations research, the practical use of math and science.   

IBM recruited her in school, and she joined the company on Aug. 18, 1975. She was assigned to Lexington, Ky., where Selectric typewriters, the popular machines that featured the replaceable “golf ball” typing element, were made.   

Sanford recalls, with a smile, standing out a bit on her first day on the job. She had come from New York, where miniskirts had been the major fashion, but had since been replaced by longer skirts. In Lexington, miniskirts were still the trend. “I walked in the cafeteria, and everyone looked at me because I was the only one in a long skirt,” Sanford said. Sanford spent a year in Lexington, where she met her husband, James, now an IBM researcher concentrating on computer display development. After a 10-year stint in Boulder, Colo., where one of the products she worked on was IBM’s first color inkjet printer, Sanford began rising through the ranks and was selected as one of several assistants to John F. Akers, then IBM’s chief executive.

ONE KEY EXECUTIVE WHO SPOTTED HER work was [Rensselaer trustee] Nicholas Donofrio ’67, now IBM’s senior vice president for technology and manufacturing, and then head of the company’s mainframe business. She joined the division as Donofrio’s strategist, and together they took on what was at best an uphill effort. Mainframes, with superb profit margins and the backbone of many major corporations, had only years before made up the core of IBM’s revenue. But mid-range computers, smaller, cheaper, and more versatile, had suddenly come on the scene, and mighty IBM was suddenly under siege.   

“All we heard was that mainframes were dinosaurs, and we hit the wall where ever we went,” Sanford said. But Donofrio, Sanford, and their executive associates knew well that corporate America had spent $1 trillion on mainframe software, and were not about to abandon the machines. And mainframes, despite all the venom aimed at them, were still the most reliable computers around.   

“We were convinced there was a way to fix the machines,” Sanford said. They undertook a revolutionary overhaul of mainframes that changed the underlying technology. The work led to computers that were smaller and cheaper, easier to maintain and upgrade, and, after several years, once again popular.   

“The comeback IBM engineered for the mainframe was remarkable,” said Michael Kahn, an analyst at the Clipper Group, a market research firm in Wellesley, Mass. Sanford led the mainframe division from February 1995 to January 1998, when she assumed her current position. She holds IBM’s top sales job, but has never been part of the sales force. She’s a woman whose expertise is in development, but she heads a small army of men with decades of experience in sales.   

Sanford acknowledges that her position is not typical, but she dismisses any obstacles. “I concentrate on what to do,” she said. With the Internet growing faster than any other industry, IBM’s major focus has been on business-to-business commerce, so a sales force that once sold hardware and software packages, and later computing solutions that utilized everything together, is once again shifting its emphasis, Sanford said.

The approach now is to merge technology and its products and services with the Internet and its demands on large, global customers. Those demands include Web operations that can be easily scaled up to meet increased demand and unexpected surges, and are highly secure and reliable, and can function 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “At the end of the day, a business has to feel that its Internet operations functioned as smoothly as its traditional operations,” Sanford said. And despite the exuberance surrounding electronic commerce, she said the real story of whether the Internet is a business success will be told not by Internet start-ups, but by old-time giants who venture into cyberspace.  

 “These are the companies that know the soup-to-nuts demands of a business, and answer to shareholders who demand a profit,” Sanford said. In steering large companies to the Internet, analysts said IBM faces major competition from sometimes more nimble competitors, including Sun Microsystems and Microsoft Corp. “This isn’t going to be easy for IBM or any other company because the Internet ground is moving so fast,” said Don Brown, an analyst in Port Chester.   

But IBM, with deep roots in large companies, is working well in slowly moving businesses onto the Internet while keeping in mind the complexities of big companies and their technological demands, analysts said. “So much of moving a large company to the Internet is hairy, and that’s what IBM excels at,” said Judith Hurwitz, an analyst in Framingham, Mass.   

Among IBM’s clients, the Prudential Insurance Co., based in Newark, N.J., has for nearly the past two years equipped 11,500 of its agents, financial planners, and field staff with laptop computers. Less than 25 percent of the people had used computers in the past, Prudential said.   

The laptops enable agents to electronically study customer profiles to determine, for example, if a Prudential client has auto insurance but not home insurance with the company. Agents can then present policies electronically, also determining premiums on laptops. Roy Schwartz, Prudential’s vice president for information systems, said the company is still evaluating precisely how the technology is helping. But he said it has improved productivity and reduced paperwork. And he said IBM has played a key role throughout the program, teaching personnel not just how to use software and hardware, but also to understand how technology can sell insurance.

WHEN SANFORD ISN’T HELPING companies understand the demands of the Internet, she relaxes by playing the piano. She said her parents insisted that she and her four sisters take piano and voice lessons. Sanford’s two children—a son in college majoring in engineering, and a daughter heading to college, to major in math—also took piano lessons.   

Sanford, chatty and personable, appears to choose her words carefully when asked about a so-called glass ceiling for female executives in corporate America, and IBM. “I really don’t focus on it, and I never felt there was a glass ceiling, at least at IBM,” Sanford said. “I’ve had multiple opportunities here, and I would have left a long time ago if I felt there was a glass ceiling.”

UPDATE

In late December, Linda Sanford was named general manager of IBM’s multibillion-dollar Storage Subsystems Division, the organization that develops and markets the company’s storage-related hardware and software systems.   

“As virtually every business on the planet becomes an e-business, the opportunities for gathering, storing, analyzing, and transporting data are mind-boggling. Businesses universally need help with all these areas and no company is better situated—or better able—to help them than IBM,” Sanford says.   

“IBM’s data storage strategies are central to the company’s growth and to capturing the opportunities that exist in our increasingly ‘wired world.’ I’m excited and energized about the possibilities ahead of us.”

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