March 30, 2015

John Imlay, the jolliest huckster

John Imlay passed away last week. Let me start by saying:

*Not as persuasive is the story about the missed chance to buy Microsoft in 1981. I knew a LOT of folks at MSA in the 1980s, and nobody ever mentioned that. Also, the story has an obviously wrong Microsoft fat (what city it was in).

John Imlay was a showman, best known for giving speeches with live animals or other dramatic visual aids, as per this short 1994 New York Times interview. But he was also a tireless, lead-from-the-front seller. An MSA salesman who booked John into an exhausting schedule of sales calls could expect a return visit from his CEO soon, because he was using Imlay’s time optimally. Indeed, I didn’t really know John all that well, probably for a couple of reasons:

But my personal experiences with him and the stories I heard from his colleagues paint a consistent picture of a genial-but-driven guy. And by the way, when he did give a talk for me at a conference, it was the second-funniest, behind only that of designated comic lunch speaker Larry Welke.

Memorable was the time when John got the chance to give a speech in London that somehow involved Prince Charles. We never heard the end of it, and it’s one of my strongest personal memories of him. Apparently, he was dazzled by royalty.

Like John Cullinane, John Imlay was a largely non-technical leader. That is of course common now just as it as it was then. But another aspect of his leadership approach was more distinctive — the famous “People are the key” mantra, supported by little Tiffany key lapel pins every MSAer was expected to wear. See for example the NYT interview above, which talks of the pins, and also reminds us that some of John’s top showmanship was delivered at in-house company meetings.

The culture-building worked. I knew a lot of MSA folks back in the day, and on the whole, they were smart, affable southerners. (Exceptions could be found in regional sales managers, who could for example be smart and affable Midwesterners, smart and affable New Englanders, or smart and affable Brits.) Whether this was, from a shareholder value perspective, the ideal culture to build is another question, that I’ll address in a separate post. But in any case, John Imlay was a likeable, successful character, and the planet is a poorer place now that he is no longer on it.

I’m surprisingly saddened by John’s passing. In simplest terms, I think the reason is that he was amazingly full of life.


2 Responses to “John Imlay, the jolliest huckster”

  1. Corporate culture in enterprise IT — the dignity crowd | Software Memories on March 30th, 2015 5:40 am

    […] (Management Science America, led by John Imlay) copied IBM’s demeanor, to the point that MSA’s logo was in the exact style of […]

  2. writes in the official Andersonkbjs 384 De blog on November 24th, 2020 2:49 am

    writes in the official Andersonkbjs 384 De blog

    Software Memories — History of the software industry, its companies and its personalities

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