There are some pretty insane employment perks on offer in Silicon Valley these days, from Google’s massage rooms, yoga classes and free child care to Twitter’s laundry service and untracked vacation days.
But have you heard about the company with its own symphony, country club memberships and even a songbook?
No, it’s not some high-flying tech startup. This is IBM. Big Blue. Nearly a century ago, the birth of what we now refer to as corporate culture — with its exercise balls, three-legged races and free banana chips — did not take place in the Googleplex or down in the valley, but in a quiet village in upstate New York at an outfit originally named the Computing Tabulating Recording Co. (CTR).
Like many of the world’s most influential traditions, American corporate culture began with a single, larger-than-life figure. In 1914, Thomas J. Watson Sr. took the helm of CTR, which he would rename International Business Machines in 1924. The son of a farmer, Watson had one year of accounting education, had no particular expertise in IBM’s core products and had been indicted for antitrust violations at his previous managing gig. But the charismatic New Yorker could sell screen doors to a submarine commander and would prove to be a transformative force in the corporate world.
As biographer Kevin Maney claims in The Maverick and His Machine, Watson was essentially the first celebrity CEO. In the midst of the Great Depression, he was the highest-paid man in America, with an annual salary approaching $365,000 (the press nicknamed him the “Thousand-Dollar-a-Day-Man”). Tycoons like Andrew Carnegie may have revolutionized the corporate structure and Henry Ford the manufacturing process, but, as Maney writes, “what Watson’s IBM did better than any company in the world was to create … a strong, cohesive — and successful — corporate culture.”