John Neilson, a rapid-fire talker whose energy and enthusiasm made him a popular executive in several leadership roles over a 12-year career at Microsoft, died Saturday after a yearlong battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Mr. Neilson, 37, "was incredibly smart and cared a lot about people," said Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, who described Mr. Neilson as a close friend. "He was thoughtful and had the highest integrity," Gates added.
Mr. Neilson and his wife, Emily, took several trips with Gates and his wife, Melinda, including a two-week vacation trip to Africa with an entourage of friends in 1994.
Six-foot-four, slender and erect, Mr. Neilson brought an irrepressible optimism to some of Microsoft's thorniest market challenges. After serving as a product manager for two popular Microsoft programs, Flight Simulator and Works, Mr. Neilson gained the attention of senior executives by turning around the company's sales office in New York, his native state, during a two-year stint as district manager.
Returning to Redmond in 1992, Mr. Neilson, as general manager for worldwide business strategy, teamed with Steve Ballmer, then sales chief and now president, to lead Microsoft's first big push into corporate software sales.
Through the 1990s Mr. Neilson managed several key parts of the effort, including Microsoft's Solution Provider support program for large enterprises. Mr. Neilson created the Certified Professional program that increased Microsoft's product presence in banking, retail, manufacturing, publishing and hospitality circles.
Microsoft history is full of Neilson lore, including memorable sales meetings in Chicago where he would treat staff to a night out at a blues bar, capped with a 2 a.m. snack of hot dogs. A blues aficionado, Mr. Neilson kept a Fender Stratocaster guitar handy for impromptu jam sessions.
Once on a trans-Atlantic flight Mr. Neilson challenged Ballmer to a contest to see who could work the longest on their laptop computer. After eight hours, Ballmer shut down for a short nap.
"I called him a wimp," Mr. Neilson later joked.
Before being stricken with cancer, Mr. Neilson served as vice president of Microsoft's interactive-services division, in charge of leading Internet services such as Expedia, CarPoint, Sidewalk and Home Advisor. He was recruited by numerous Internet startups but remained fiercely loyal to Microsoft.
Mr. Neilson initially fought off the disease and was planning to return to work. With renewed onset of his illness last fall, Mr. Neilson entered an experimental program at the University of Chicago led by Dr. David Liebovitz.
"It was typical of John to go after something new and innovative," said his brother-in-law, Bill Kane. "He was always seeking out a better alternative."
Mr. Neilson was "very creative and imaginative, but also extremely hard-working," Kane added. "He was always saying, `Give me hard-working, smart people and there's nothing we can't do.' "
Mr. Neilson "really loved that company and everybody there," Kane added.
Even in failing health last week, Kane said, Mr. Neilson remained upbeat, paraphrasing Winston Churchill, "Never give up, and never give in."
Born in New York City and raised in Litchfield, Conn., Mr. Neilson attended the Taft School in Watertown, Conn. and Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where he co-edited the literary magazine, then titled Hiaka. After graduating, Mr. Neilson interned with George Plimpton at the Paris Review, a leading literary journal, before enrolling in the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University, from which he received his master's degree in 1987.
Kellogg last year honored Mr. Neilson with its Schaffner Award for distinguished alumni.
Besides his wife, Mr. Neilson is survived by three young children, Susan, John and Elliot; his parents, John Fullerton Neilson of Chicago and Prudence Coleman Sellars of Amelia Island, Fla.; a brother, Thomas Sperry of Boston; and three sisters, Nina Cobb of Kentfield, Calif., Mandy Kane of Winnetka, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, and Sarah Sperry of Chicago.
Services will be private. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to the John F. Neilson Scholarship Fund at Kellogg Graduate School, Room 348, 2001 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60208.
Paul Andrews' phone message number is 206-464-2360. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org