Sharon Machlis

Patrick J. McGovern: An appreciation

March 20, 2014 9:55 AM EDT

We've lost a brilliant entrepreneur and tech visionary with the passing of IDG Founder and Chairman Patrick J. McGovern.

IDG was very much Mr. McGovern's company, starting with his initial idea back in the mid-1960s that people needed honest, unbiased information about computer technology. He became a technology entrepreneur long before it was fashionable, launching  International Data Corp. in 1964, selling his car to help with start-up funds.


Credit: Jason Grow

"I tried to ask a few friends if they believed in me enough to invest in the company. Only my wife and my sister had enough belief in me to go invest, and each went to the limit of their belief, they gave me $10 each," he told the Computerworld Honors program in 2000. "One of my satisfactions is that $10 is now worth $4 million."

All employees who worked at IDG more than a couple of years remember his long-time tradition of handing out holiday bonuses personally to each of us. He would stop and shake our hands and thank us personally for some specific work we'd done for the company -- and he did this for thousands of people. He brushed up in advance, making sure to learn something about everyone -- an impressive annual feat for a man who had quite a bit else vying for his time and attention.

During many of his visits, he'd ask us very specific questions about our business and how things were going -- with our bosses and business unit chief standing by. Someone once asked him why he'd ask questions like that with people's superiors right there -- did he really expect honest and frank answers? He laughed his trademark booming laugh and explained that he was looking for how people responded as much as what they said. Did they feel comfortable talking or did they look like they feared their superiors? It was one of many ways he tried to keep himself informed about how things were for the average employee.

Those of us fortunate enough to have worked for him for more than 10 years were taken out to dinner by him for what was truly an evening to remember. Like Mr. McGovern himself, the whole enterprise was a class act. The night started with a limo to whisk us from the office to a top Boston restaurant. When we arrived, he was there curbside to greet us, handing each of the women a single long-stemmed rose.

At the table over what is likely the most expensive bottle of champagne I've ever enjoyed, he regaled us with tales of how he opened the China market to U.S. publishing and his exciting trip to Antarctica. He talked about his passion for brain research -- he pledged $350 million to MIT to establish the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. (It was reported to be the largest-ever single gift to a US university at the time). And he made sure to ask each of us about something in our lives -- he studied for these dinners beforehand so he'd know about each of the employees he was honoring.

His belief in unbiased information never wavered. How many other corporate media executives after a vendor yanked all advertising following a story about  overcharging customers would respond with a memo saying great job?

I used to joke that he was the only billionaire who actually knew me personally. But it wasn't a joke -- despite leading a global corporation with many thousands of employees, he not only knew my name but what I did. And it was the same for pretty much all of us.

Mr. McGovern truly believed that better access to quality information would help improve the world. "Before people can achieve something they have to conceive of the possibility of that achievement, and information is the seed of that conception," he said in that 2000 Computerworld interview (see PDF download of full interview transcript). "When I read this book about the Giant Brains or Machines that Think, I was inspired to move ahead in that field. I thought, 'Gee, if I could be a major contributor to the flow of information so that people could understand the possibilities of computers and communications and electronics, and then inspire that technology and improve the ways to apply it, then eventually we would be able to make much greater use of this in enhancing the quality of human life.

"I wanted to bring the possibilities to people and get them stimulated about understanding how this technology could help."