Julie Olson described her father as a high-powered executive trapped in the body of a puppy dog. Jim Olson may have looked huggable, but it was his tremendous business skills that got him on the cover of Businessweek in January 1988 where he was acknowledged as the mastermind of AT&T's resurgence.
On Dec 3, 1925, Jim Olson was born in Devils Lake, ND where his father was a barber and his mother a teacher. In 1943, after graduating from high school in Grand Fork, ND Northwestern Bell Telephone Co. gave him a job as a cable splicer’s assistant. It was an inauspicious beginning of an illustrious career that would take him to the top of one of the biggest companies in the world, AT&T. He only took time out for college at the University of North Dakota and for service in the army.
In the early 1950s, Olson spent three years in Iowa as district traffic supervisor in Ottumwa and Des Moines. He was promoted, taking positions in Nebraska and Minnesota before returning to Des Moines in 1966 as vice president and general manager for Iowa. During his four years in Iowa Jim was recognized not only as an executive with a very sharp mind but also as a “people person” who felt a great commitment to the community.
After leaving Iowa, he continued up the corporate ladder stopping in Indiana and Illinois before reaching New York as executive vice-president of AT&T in 1977. He was made president and CEO in 1985, chairman in 1986. This was a period of tumultuous change within the telecommunications industry. As AT&T struggled to find its place after divestiture, Olson took control, leading reorganization and cost reduction program that would, in twenty short months, put his company back on top.
Olson died in 1988 from colon cancer just four weeks after it was diagnosed.