James Bitonti, 72, CEO of firm, IBM executive

November 03, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

James A. Bitonti, a retired IBM executive and former chief executive officer of TCOM LP in Columbia, died Friday of liver and kidney failure in his Ellicott City home. He was 72.

Mr. Bitoni was born in Star City, W.Va., and grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. He began his career in electronics in 1949 in the Navy.

When he was stationed at Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts, he met and married Agnes Clyne in 1952.

In 1955, Mr. Bitonti began his 32-year career at International Business Machines Corp., during which he played a key role in the Apollo space and Trident submarine programs. His positions at IBM included manager of manufacturing in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; vice president and general manager of the electronic systems center in Owego, N.Y.; and vice president of operations for the federal systems division in Bethesda.

He served as the vice president and general manager of the data systems division and was promoted to corporate vice president of manufacturing worldwide.

He also worked as the president of the communications products division. In 1987, he retired as the corporate vice president and assistant group executive for the Asia/Pacific group.

During his career with IBM, Mr. Bitonti graduated from Harvard University's advanced management program in 1971.

Vincent Cook, former president of IBM's federal systems division, said Mr. Bitonti was one of the people "you always remember who touched your life."

"He's one of the most unique leaders I've ever met," he said. "He was effective in business, but his greatest challenge was ... to have people grow both in their personal and business lives. That's what made him so effective."

Two years after leaving IBM, Mr. Bitonti became CEO of TCOM, which makes tethered aerostats - airborne carriers of surveillance and communications equipment.

Glenn Beach, a former vice president at TCOM, described Mr. Bitonti as a "fantastic leader." In the mid-1990s, they met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Mr. Beach was surprised to discover that Mr. Bitonti's reputation preceded him.

"To walk into the room and have the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stand up and recognize Jim Bitonti and his accomplishments when he was vice president of IBM - they were all well aware of some of the programs he was responsible for," he said.

"It was pretty much that way just about everywhere," Mr. Beach said. "You could have an issue with a major corporation ... and Jim would know the top people and they would know of him."

Mr. Bitonti served on a number of corporate boards, including Raytheon E-Systems KFx, Crompton Corp., Gateway Capital Corp., Mirrors International Inc. and Phaser Systems Inc. He also served on the board of the Howard County United Way as well as on the board of trustees at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and was an advisory board member of Rice University in Houston.

Mr. Bitonti's son, James V. Bitonti of North Potomac, described his father as "an absolute powerhouse. ... He was very driven."

"I think it was important [to him] to make a difference while he was here," he said. "That's what he taught all of his kids."

Mr. Bitonti enjoyed riding his motorcycle and playing squash and racquetball. He was also known for smoking cigars, drinking scotch and debating.

"He was one of those 3 a.m. solve-the-world's-problems type of guy," said his daughter, Beth Mruk of Finksburg. "We would all sit up at night and have a fire going in the fireplace and just chat."

Mr. Bitonti's family said one of his greatest joys came from sitting on his home's deck and watching the deer in his yard.

"He would put out about 400 pounds of corn a week and a salt lick, and he had a herd of deer that just came and ate," his son said. "And they didn't eat his plants because he fed them."

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. today at St. Louis Roman Catholic Church, 12500 Clarksville Pike in Clarksville.

In addition to his wife, son and daughter, survivors include daughters Ann Grimm of Silver Spring, Laurie Strong of Warrenton, Va., and Christine Bitonti of Ellicott City; 14 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by daughters Lisa and Patricia Bitonti and grandson Jimmy Bitonti.

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