First president of Dell shares the power of fate, imagination and hard work in memoir
Lee Walker explicitly did not set out to write a self-help book like “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”
In fact, his slim, elegant memoir about personal and business leadership, “Imagination House,” deals with crisis, failure and disappointment as much as it delights in serendipity, inspiration and redirection.
The self-deprecating and very readable book by the first president of what is now Dell Technologies was born several years ago out of Walker’s distress while leading his cherished sessions with Texas A&M University honors students during the school’s annual leadership seminars in Assisi, Italy.
The chats were not going as well as in the past.
Always curious, always ingenious, Walker would not, however, give up.
“I meant to hold onto this connection that I hold so dear with the students in Italy,” Walker, 78, says. “Absent that, I’m positive I wouldn’t have done this book.”
Meant as an introduction to life and career for his students, “Imagination House,” recently published by Texas A&M University Press, is a very personal story. Yet it also doubles as an insider’s view of certain crucial installments in Austin’s past.
Just right at 150 pages, it includes scenes from his youth in South Texas; his time at A&M, where he played basketball and studied physics; his years as a struggling entrepreneur, as an environmental leader, as the longtime chairman of Cap Metro and of the Community Investment Corporation, as well as a beloved and much-honored University of Texas teacher; and his tenure as the president of Dell during its formative years, when the company was known as PCs Limited.
“The idea was that the students would get the book in advance,” Walker says, “and that it would elicit questions and commentary, and we would have a fine chat. It worked, by the way. Just had the first run in July in Assisi. I was so delighted with the quality of questions and conversation.”
While Walker’s students were the primary intended readers of this book, “Imagination House” imparts plenty of hard-won wisdom for anyone.
One crucial scene — typically involving misdirection and “blessed happenstance” — came in 1986.
A mutual friend, Jim Seymour, had asked Walker to have dinner with Michael Dell, some 25 years his junior, and an unnamed man from Brooklyn who was the main prospective president for Dell’s two-year-old company. Instead of asking serious business questions to help vet the man, Walker peppered the guest with queries about the Brooklyn Dodgers, idols of his youth.
After that dinner, which Walker says he felt had gone a little “nutty,” Dell dropped by his house unannounced, then asked him to run his fledgling company over lunch.
“I turned him down flat,” Walker says. “I frequently don't do well at sizing up situations. I had zero idea of the company’s potential. To me, though, the crazy baseball story is everything, because that’s what happened when I met Michael. ... Michael is good at many things, including getting help and listening to people to get help.”
“A few decades ago, Lee took a chance on a 21-year-old with a scrappy startup and big ambitions,” says Michael Dell, chairman and CEO, Dell Technologies. “He was there when we needed help to manage our growth, global expansion and the IPO process. I still don’t know what inspired him to join Dell, but I’ll always be grateful he did.”
How did an atypical entrepreneur like Walker — whose kind, light blue eyes seem to twinkle unceasingly — eventually end up at that dinner and lunch with Dell anyway?
Start at the beginning: Born in Coffeyville, Kan., Walker is the son of a schoolteacher, Thelma Ruth Baker Walker, and a chemist, Dallas Walker. His father’s profession took him to Three Rivers in Live Oak County, where the chemist earned $7,000 a year at a small oil refinery.
Walker, who had just turned 11, entered the sixth grade at Three Rivers Junior High School. He played basketball and excelled in class. He still fully identifies as a son of South Texas and recently attended his 60th reunion.
Walker graduated from Texas A&M with a B.S. in physics in 1963, and he received NASA and National Science Foundation funding for his postgraduate work in nuclear physics. He switched gears to earn his MBA from the Harvard Business School in 1967.
A fascination with science and business appears to run in the family.
“Dad was sort of a wannabe entrepreneur,” Walker says. “His boss told Dad that if he could start a business, he could share in the profits. So he spent nights and weekends packing grease — lubricating grease. The one place in the world interested in his grease was Cuba. (Revolutionary) Mr. (Fidel) Castro stepped in, and it all came apart. I think it really wrecked him. Dad’s doctor said he died of cancer. My opinion is he died of a broken heart.”
The near presence of financial ruin has haunted Walker ever since. One of the most compelling sequences in the book follows an early business failure.
“I was ruined,” Walker says. “Not only that, I was ruined in Buffalo. I was a dunce who really wanted to work for myself. I left the juicier parts of that story out of the book. They are so completely improbable, they would strain credulity.”
In 1972, Walker purchased Buffalo’s Kellogg Mann from its owner, who seemed like a kindly man interested in the young businessman’s future.
“I thought that this old man loved me,” he says. “It didn't occur to me he was cheating me. It was a punch to the solar plexus. I couldn’t believe it was really happening. It pushed all the buttons — failure, disgrace.”
The company, it turned out, had been manufacturing its products illegally. Walker could not see beyond the present doom, although one of his “blessed happenstances” was waiting for him in a welding services company about 9 miles away.
Walker used the reformed welding services business as a steppingstone to redesigning a new product line of incinerators. Following a hearing in Florida during which regulators switched votes in his favor after Walker gave a dramatic speech, the combined company won contracts to manufacture scrap metal recycling furnaces.
“I thought, ‘If I'm going to go down, I’m going down with guns blazing,’” Walker says. “We were reclaiming scrap metals. It was a decent business, not great business. And this experience gave me a shot at survival. I sold my companies one at a time beginning in 1977.”
The memoir is named after a garden-dappled property dubbed Imagination House, located near Walker and wife Jennifer Vickers’ cheerful old home in the Hyde Park neighborhood. Walker, who rides a bike to, from and across the UT campus, has convened brainstorming sessions there, although currently he rents it to an entrepreneur.
Imagination has always whispered into Walker’s ear. Back in 1986, when he was reconsidering Dell’s offer, Dell’s banker took him aside and told him not to take the job. The banker believed that Dell would soon run out of money.
Walker thought that the banker’s advice was odd, so he consulted with a veteran investor in town. Walker’s skeptical inspiration proved clairvoyant. The investor rightly guessed that the bank itself was about to go under during the aftermath of disastrous deregulation and overspending in the banking industry during the 1980s.
Walker joined Dell, which not only survived but thrived, for three heady years its first president.
“I was working 5 to 9,” he says with a laugh. “I have an obsessive personality. I don't know how to balance. Students ask me how to have a balanced life. I have no idea.”
Two problems at Dell, which introduced direct sales and customized products to the world of personal computers, were solved in one stroke.
First, too many customers regularly complained that PCs Limited’s customized products failed because of faulty parts.
“In those days, customers called, and we answered the phone,” Walker says. “We did our best to sell our computer, but if it went wrong, they came and pounded on our virtual front door.”
Second, a plant manager at Tandem Computers, the dominant manufacturer of fault-tolerant computer systems that provided maximum uptime and zero data loss for banks and similar businesses, accused Dell of poaching employees.
Walker solved both challenges by meeting with the Tandem plant manager who had invented a system whereby each part of a computer was named and overseen by its maker, thus ensuring higher quality and easier repair.
“His invention was so unappreciated and underutilized at Tandem, where they made only terminals,” Walker says. “There wasn’t the variety of products that we had at PCs Limited. I don’t think he was — or is — fully appreciated. I thought that if we can get him past where he thinks he’s been done wrong, we could be a showcase for his product by taking his system, levitating it a few miles and dropping it into our business, along with a few of his people to help.”
It worked. Problems with consistency disappeared. A potential and unnecessary rivalry with much larger Tandem was avoided.
In those days, only Walker and Dell served on the fledgling company’s two-person board of directors. When time came to expand and seek large-scale capital, they took their dog and pony show to Wall Street, where Goldman Sachs agreed to work with them. One of the things the new investors demanded was a larger board with some seasoned Austin tech folks on board — and that Walker drop his de facto role as CFO and concentrate solely on serving as president.
He needed to focus.
While returning from establishing one of Dell’s overseas subsidiaries, Walker collapsed.
“I had excruciating back pains,” Walker says. ”I underwent a laminectomy at Breckenridge Hospital. While there I contracted some form of meningitis. I left Dell because I got sick. When I told Michael, we both cried.”
To recover and regain his health, Walker took a year off to live on a houseboat.
“In the hospital, I had dreams about floating,” he says. “That meant a boat, and I’m not a boatman. So I found this wonderful houseboat that didn’t cost much. It was tall with ceiling fans. (Walker is 6 feet, 9 inches tall.) I wondered if I did nothing for a year but swim and sleep and pull into a marina for a time to eat, the body might heal itself.”
After the pause, Walker returned to his previous advocacy of the environment.
“I had been the chairman of Westcave Preserve for a long time,” Walker said of the ecological gem above the Pedernales River that grassroots activists rescued from overuse. “I started leading tours the year after I returned to Texas in 1978. I became chairman in 1980. Had I expired at the moment, the brief obituary in the newspaper would have led with the word ‘Westcave.’”
He dropped anchor in the houseboat and watched activist and current Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea on TV as she orated during the Save Our Springs debate that led to the triumph of greens in Austin.
“I thought, ’What a courageous woman,’” Walker recalls. “When I came in off the boat, I decided, as the recent past president of Dell, that the business community needed to sign up for this cause.”
So Walker dug into SOS.
“I still think he was exceptionally brave as a respected business leader to take such a strong stand in support of SOS,” Shea says. “He’s very principled, and he has the courage of his convictions.”
Hand in hand with his efforts to save green spaces was his leadership of Cap Metro. He chaired the public transportation board for 11 years, from 1997 to 2008. During his time, the agency underwent enormous changes, including major — and failed — efforts to build a light rail system in 2000, and Walker threw himself behind a series of bruising campaigns.
“God, I loved that job,” Walker says. But at a funeral for a friend, another friend warned that he thought Walker was pushing himself too hard.
“At the same time, I was the primary caretaker for my mother,” he says. “I was doing an inadequate job with my mother and with Cap Metro and feeling really unhappy. I resigned the next day. I was sad for that. We were just starting to get traction on some stuff. I still have massive regrets about things undone at Cap Metro.”
By that time, Walker was known to just about everyone who paid attention to the civic sphere in Austin. Not many knew, however, that he had already found the most satisfying outlet for his energies and intelligence in 1991 — teaching.
As usual, it started with a measure of serendipity.
“I was in Cloudcroft, N.M.,” Walker says. “I was a lost puppy in those days. A biblical hailstorm hit the old wooden hotel. Things started shaking just as we were putting our bags on the bed. I came galumphing down the stairs.”
In the lobby, of all places, was Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who greeted Walker.
Walker: “You are the famous one, and yet you know me.”
Earle: “I see you every day on TV doing those SOS commercials.”
They had dinner. Walker asked after Earle’s aspirations.
“I want to teach a course in community in Plan II at UT,” Earle said of the university’s honors program. “I have a syllabus. I just joined the faculty.”
Earle, who had traveled to Cloudcroft because of a dream, invited Walker to co-teach the course with him the first semester. Earle, preoccupied with the response to his indictment of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, dropped out, and Walker suddenly inherited the course.
“This thing, teaching, is my lifeline today, and it came because of a hailstorm,” Walker says.
These days, Walker teaches 75 students, and he has won numerous teaching awards.
“When I think back to the quasi-mystical beginnings of it all, I’m in thrall,” Walker says. “This is actually what I must do.”