Ibm's Heirs Apparent?

As the computer industry wrestles with massive change, nobody in volved is getting more attention than IBM's chairman and chief executive, John F. Akers. He swept all heirs apparent out the door about a year ago and since has seemed determined to tackle IBM's problems on his own.

On Nov. 25, however, Akers promoted five executives to senior vice-president. The company warned against reading too much into the move, and analysts such as Robert Djurdjevic, president of Annex Research, say the elevations contain "no secret messages about succession." But the clock is ticking for Akers, who in 1994 will turn 60 and, if IBM tradition holds, retire. Akers could hang on, of course. But with no clear successor in sight, handicappers can't resist evaluating the five new senior vice-presidents: Ned C. Lautenbach, head of Asian marketing; Robert J. LaBant, U.S. marketing chief; M. Bernard Puckett, a software and services executive; James A. Cannavino, who has charge of desktop systems; and Ellen M. Hancock, IBM's networking chief.

RATING THE FIELD. All have strengths that an IBM CEO could use. LaBant proved his marketing mettle overseeing IBM's AS/400 minicomputer, now a $14 billion business for IBM. The key strategy: a strong focus on software for specific industries. Similarly, Lautenbach once oversaw IBM's investments in scores of small software companies.

Cannavino's experience ranges from mainframe development to running IBM's besieged personal-computer group. Hancock, Big Blue's highest-ranking woman ever, brings strength in telecommunications, a key technology for the future. And Puckett, a southerner known within IBM for his serious demeanor, has valuable marketing and mainframe-development experience.

Lautenbach, some ex-IBMers say, is the strongest candidate. If IBM's performance continues to disappoint investors, though, Big Blue might, for the first time, turn to an outsider for CEO. For now, according to an outside director recently quoted in The Wall Street Journal, the board continues to back Akers. He remains, however, under fire from stockholder groups.

Whoever gets the job will have plenty to do. "There's a total lack of vision," says one former top IBM executive. The company is betting too heavily on its product groups, he says, and not enough on understanding specific industries. Akers "sure as hell isn't putting a jolt of electricity into the company," the ex-IBMer says.

An outsider might deliver the right voltage. For now, Akers can only hope, as President-elect Clinton is doing, that the recent signs of economic recovery hold true. If so, both men could avoid more drastic interventions.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.