Platt, Lewis Emmett (“Lew”)
Platt, Lewis Emmett (“Lew”)
(b. 11 April 1941 in Johnson City, New York; d. 8 September 2005 in Petal-uma, California), corporate executive who led Hewlett-Packard through the 1990s and then came out of retirement to lead the Boeing Company through a succession of scandals.
Platt was born to Norval Lewis and Margaret (Williams) Platt. He attended Johnson City High School, where he was named the “class plugger.” After graduating in 1959, he went to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he obtained a BME in 1964. Two years later he received an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Platt joined Hewlett-Packard (HP) as a process engineer immediately upon graduation, working in their medical products division in Waltham, Massachusetts. Thirty years later, he would reminisce about how, in these early years, he relied on the analytical tools he had learned in school. However, he quickly learned the greater importance of what the company’s founders had called the “HP Way—finding a way to inspire teamwork, getting people motivated to achieve a common goal.”
Platt moved steadily up the corporate ladder at HP, which had its headquarters in Palo Alto, California. He became the general manager at Waltham in 1974 and the general manager of the Analytical Group in 1980. He was named a vice president in 1983 and an executive vice president and head of the Computer Products Sector four years later. In September 1992 Platt became the company’s president and chief executive officer (CEO). When David Packard, one of HP’s founders, retired a year later, Platt was named chairman of the board as well. Although many had expected HP to continue its tradition of charismatic leadership, Platt’s commitment to “management by walking around”—flying on commercial airlines rather than fancy company jets, eating in the cafeteria with the rank and file, stopping in the labs to actually witness product development—won the day.
For the next five years Platt’s commitment to HP’s core values made his selection seem an inspired one. Under his leadership, the company’s revenue grew by 13 percent a year, from $20 billion in 1993 to $42 billion in 1999, and its stock price increased eightfold. In 1994 Platt was named Industry Week’s Technology Leader of the Year. Unfortunately, by the end of the decade Platt’s commitment to “balancing change with continuity” appeared to have held the company back, particularly signaled by HP’s failure to respond to the rise in importance of the Internet. In 1999 he was replaced by Carly Fiorina, who had made her reputation at Lucent Technologies. Before he stepped down, Platt initiated a key move for Hewlett-Packard: he spun off from HP’s computing and imaging business Agilent Technologies, an independent entity incorporating the medical measurement business that had been the company’s, and Platt’s own, original foundation. It was a move that would protect both companies from the volatility that soon overtook the entire electronics industry.
Fiorina’s selection as the first female CEO in the computer industry was made possible by Platt’s twenty-year commitment to gender equity. In 1981 his first wife, Susan, had died of a brain tumor, leaving Platt to juggle a heavy executive workload and the care of two young daughters. He learned firsthand how difficult that task was; accordingly, when he became CEO, he instituted an aggressive campaign to make duties and hours products of individual choice not corporate fiat. His actions eliminated the gender gap in HP’s turnover and reduced the rate to 5 percent, one-third of the computing industry average.
Platt, an executive cut from the traditional workaholic cloth, could not gently fade into his off-duty roles as an avid fly fisherman or fantasy football fanatic. Within months he agreed to become the CEO and director of Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, a relatively small winery in Fulton, California, planning to increase its market share by going public. The fit was a good one, since Platt was a long-time oenophile with some 2,500 bottles in his personal cellar. However, the dot-com collapse ruined the market for such financing, and Kendall-Jackson soon agreed to merge with another wine producer. Platt found himself once more in retirement, but not for long.
Platt had remained on a number of corporate boards, including those of Pacific Telesis, the SETI Institute, and the Boeing Company in Chicago. In December 2003 Boeing’s chairman and CEO abruptly resigned in the face of a growing financial scandal, and Platt was asked to assume the role of non-executive chairman of the board, with Harry Stonecipher as the new CEO. Under their leadership, Boeing began to deal with the scandals and to reassume leadership of the world’s airplane industry. Then, in March 2005, Platt received an anonymous tip that Stonecipher was involved in a sexual affair with a senior employee of the company. It was not only behavior “inconsistent with Boeing’s code of conduct” but also behavior that went directly against Platt’s most deeply held beliefs in decency and equity. Stonecipher resigned, and Platt’s board of directors selected W. James McNerney, Jr., who finally resolved Boeing’s legal and ethical scandals in 2006.
Platt received numerous honors during his years with Hewlett-Packard and Boeing. In 1992 he was given the Red Triangle Award from the Young Men’s Christian Association, an organization he supported vigorously throughout his life. In 1995 he was named a Wharton School Outstanding Alumnus and a Business Week Top Manager. The same year he was nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as the chair of the World Trade Organization Task Force. He also earned the Tree of Life Award from the Jewish National Fund (1996) and the French-American Chamber of Commerce Leadership and Vision Award (1997).
Platt’s energy, commitment to work, and eagerness to seize opportunities whenever they arose survived three corporate crises. He was unable to survive a brain aneurysm, which felled him at his ranch in West Sonoma County, California. He left behind his wife, Joan Ellen Redmund Platt, whom he had married on 15 January 1983; four daughters (two from his first marriage and two from hers); and three grandchildren.
Platt was remembered by colleagues as “genuine, self-effacing, and honest”; “someone who cares about people”; “a true leader.” He was a man who preferred to lead by example, setting standards of dedication, modesty, and integrity by his actions and not just his words. His own summing-up was typically modest: “CEOs get their jollies from the good performance of their company.... It’s not from an extra million you made from a performance bonus.”
For an early profile of Platt, see “Lew Platt: Creating a Culture for Innovation,” Industry Week (19 Dec. 1994). See also an interview at the Wharton School’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, “Unusual Turbulence: Lewis Platt on Navigating Boeing Through a Leadership Challenge” (25 Feb. 2004), http://www.whartonsp.com/articles/article.asp?p=328184; and the keynote address at a conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Entrepreneurship 2010, “Accepting Risk—Daring Greatness: An Entrepreneurial Credo” (20 Mar. 2004), http://www.boeing.com/news/speeches/2004/platt_040320.html. Obituaries are in the New York Times (10 Sept. 2005) and Business Week (12 Sept. 2005).
Hartley S. Spatt