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John Opel led International Business Machines Corp. in the early 1980s, when the office technology giant unleashed the personal computer.

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Mr. Opel, who died Thursday at age 86, developed the marketing effort for the PC, and helped lead an automated-manufacturing initiative. Revenue and profits skyrocketed for IBM.

But while the IBM PC became the industry standard in terms of computer architecture and was the first choice for desktop business computing, manufacturing PCs proved a bad long-term strategy for the company. IBM eventually sold off its PC business.

The consummate organization man, Mr. Opel’s career tracked the ascent of IBM from an accounting machine dealer to computer giant. He considered himself an epitome of IBM’s corporate culture, and was noted for his white button-downed shirts and his buttoned-down personality.

“Plain vanilla,” an IBM board member once told Time magazine. “But good plain vanilla.”

After business school at the University of Chicago, Mr. Opel joined IBM as a salesman in a remote Ozark region. He held more than a dozen jobs on the way to being named CEO.

One of these was executive assistant to Thomas Watson Jr., IBM’s long-time CEO and son of the company’s founder. In the early 1960s, Mr. Opel helped lead the development of the IBM System 360, among the most successful line of mainframe computers in history.

After serving as IBM’s president during the 1970s, Mr. Opel was named CEO in 1981. A priority at the time was bringing the PC to market, a project that had begun under Mr. Opel’s predecessor, Frank Cary. Among Mr. Opel’s early decisions was to license the PC’s operating system from a small Seattle start-up called Microsoft Corp.

According to computer-industry lore, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates got a meeting with Mr. Opel in part because Mr. Opel sat on the board of the Seattle branch of the United Way Appeal with Mr. Gates’s mother, Mary Gates. Whatever the truth the MS-DOS license was a fateful moment in the history of computing and led directly to Microsoft’s later success.

A native of Jefferson City, Mo., Mr. Opel was the son of a local hardware store owner. He served in the Army and fought in Okinawa during World War II. He signed on at IBM as a salesman in 1949.

Selling business machines in the Ozarks was a challenge, but Mr. Opel did well enough that IBM gave him a new job monitoring manufacturing operations. In 1959, he became an executive at the corporate headquarters at Armonk, N.Y., where he became accustomed to working with engineers.

A year after Mr. Opel arrived at the corner office, the U.S. Justice Department dropped a 13-year-long antitrust prosecution of IBM, leaving the company free to introduce new lines of computers and office equipment. Much—including the only domestically-produced typewriters—was manufactured at high-automated plants that Mr. Opel spearheaded.

IBM’s revenues and earnings both doubled within four years of Mr. Opel’s arrival. He retired in 1985 as CEO when he reached IBM’s mandatory retirement age 60. A year later, Mr. Opel retired as chairman.

By the 1990s, the volatile PC business turned against IBM, and CEO Louis Gerstner began disassembling the industrial edifice Mr. Opel had helped create. He stayed on the board of directors as chairman of the executive committee until 1994.

“No matter what I had in my jurisdiction, I typically felt I was more competent to deal with it than anyone else,” Mr. Opel told Time magazine in 1983.