Opel Era At I.B.M. Ends June 1

By David E. Sanger
Special to the New York Times

Los Angeles -- March 25, 1986 -- John R. Opel, the chairman of the International Business Machines Corporation, who surmounted antitrust complaints against the company and braced it for a new era of low-cost desktop computers, said today that he would retire June 1.

Mr. Opel will be succeeded by John F. Akers, 51 years old, who will retain his titles as I.B.M.'s president and chief executive. The move, which was not a surprise, leaves Mr. Akers with sole command of the world's largest computer company at a critical juncture: I.B.M. is attempting to revive its profits, which declined slightly during last year's computer slump after years of solid growth, while coordinating a wide range of initiatives into telecommunications, software and specialty services.

The 61-year-old Mr. Opel, a private man who rarely gave interviews or explained his actions publicly, said in a terse statement today that his 37-year I.B.M. career had been ''exciting and fulfilling.''

To Head Executive Committee

''I feel confident that the years ahead will offer even more opportunity for I.B.M. and this dynamic industry,'' he said. I.B.M. said that Mr. Opel would become chairman of the executive committee of its board of directors, a post previously held by Frank T. Cary, Mr. Opel's predecessor as chairman. Mr. Cary will continue to hold a seat on the board.

Mr. Opel's tenure as I.B.M.'s chairman was brief, only five years. But he presided over some of the broadest changes in the company's history, including its rapid entry into the personal computer market. That, in turn, sparked a reorientation of I.B.M.'s entire product line toward powerful desktop computers connected by sophisticated telecommunications systems and away from the giant mainframe computers that made its name. Along the way, I.B.M. purchased the Rolm Corporation, a Silicon Valley maker of telecommunications equipment, and branched into a range of new ventures, from videotex to banking machines.

But Mr. Opel's biggest contribution, company insiders and analysts agree, was far less visible to the public than the sleek I.B.M. retail outlets that have become commonplace in virtually every major city. ''The Opel touch was in the production facilities,'' Frank Gens, an analyst for the International Data Corporation, a computer consulting firm in Framingham, Mass., said today. ''It was putting the focus on high-volume, low-cost manufacturing,'' a task that often required persuading managers that some components were best produced outside the company.

Indeed, in one of his few interviews, Mr. Opel dwelled at some length on I.B.M.'s efforts to re-enter traditional markets, such as electric typewriters, by building highly automated plants in which robots assemble products that were designed to minimize the number of key components. ''The most impressive technology,'' he said, ''may not be in the product, but in the way you put it together.'' Today I.B.M. is the only major typewriter manufacturer that still assembles its typewriters in the United States.

Some Critics Within Company

Within the company, however, Mr. Opel also had his critics, who maintained that he was mostly executing a plan laid out by Mr. Cary.

They also questioned whether the company was moving quickly enough to solve a host of problems in connecting the raft of new I.B.M. products -mostly desktop computers.

I.B.M. customers have chafed over the difficulty of making the company's systems communicate. And in the past year, they have given only a lukewarm response to another major initiative of Mr. Opel's tenure, the so-called Sierra - or 3090 -series of mainframes, which some major customers have said are too expensive and not sufficiently distinct from earlier models.

''Opel can be credited with being at the helm in good growth years, the time when I.B.M. returned to aggressive marketing,'' said Thomas J. Crotty, a vice president of the Gartner Group, a Stamford, Conn., market research firm that follows the computer giant closely. ''But now that is slowing down, and John Akers will have his hands full.''

End of a 13-Year-Old Suit

If I.B.M. felt free to take a more aggressive posture under Mr. Opel, it may have been in part because of the dismissal in 1982 of the 13-year-long antitrust suit brought by the Justice Department in the closing hours of the Johnson Administration.

The suit, Mr. Opel said later, was a tremendous drain on I.B.M.'s resources and management, and he was quickly angered at any suggestion that I.B.M. ever abused its size.

Also retiring, I.B.M. said, is another key figure in I.B.M.'s antitrust battles, both in the United States and Europe: Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, 64, the senior vice president for law and external relations and formerly the United States Attorney General and Under Secretary of State. In 1984 he played a key role in negotiating a settlement of the antitrust complaint filed by the European Economic Commission. Mr. Katzenbach, I.B.M. said, plans to join the law firm of Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti in Morristown, N.J.

The retirement of Mr. Opel leaves full command of the company to Mr. Akers, who, when he entered I.B.M.'s executive suite as president, seemed at first glance to be Mr. Opel's corporate twin. Both began as salesmen in remote offices - Mr. Opel in his hometown of Jefferson City, Mo., where his father ran a hardware store - and both had circulated through a variety of staff and operating posts.

In the past year, however, Mr. Akers has been more outspoken than Mr. Opel, speaking publicly in a number of forums and seeking to explain how ''we have literally turned the company upside down.''

At 51, Mr. Akers, who has been running the day-to-day operations of the company since February 1985, could remain as chief executive for another nine years under I.B.M. policy, and company officials indicated today that no appointment of a new president was imminent.

GRAPHIC: Photos of John R. Opel, Nicholas deB. Katzenbach and John F. Akers (Magnum/Erich Hartmann; NYT/Fred R. Conrad; Contact/Louie Psihoyos)

Copyright 1986 The New York Times Company