THOMPSON: Memories of working with General Electric CEO 'Neutron Jack' | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source
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THOMPSON: Memories of working with General Electric CEO 'Neutron Jack'

 


OPINION


In 1979, I spent three weeks working day and night with Jack Welch, the soon-to-be anointed Chairman and C.E.O. of General Electric. More on my impressions of “Neutron Jack” - a sarcastic nickname he earned in the 1980s for his ability to eliminate employees while leaving buildings intact - later in this column. Meanwhile, here’s how I got there.

I was fortunate throughout my career to work with some of the brightest shining stars in business. Early on - during my mid-20s and early-30s - I held positions in two challenging areas, corporate media relations and speechwriting for General Electric and DuPont.

GE and DuPont were, respectively, the world’s ninth and tenth largest companies in the world. They were the only companies in the Top Ten that were neither oil nor automotive companies.

The two jobs offered high-visibility opportunities…often allowing face-to-face work with senior management, including the C.E.O.s. There was a chance to ride a wave of success with every favourable newspaper, magazine or television interview…every well-received speech that made the company’s stock price nudge upward.

My career scales were balanced with an ever-present reality that - like a gunfighter in the old west - one wrong move could prove deadly. I lived - willingly - each day with that career-ending threat hanging over me…usually but not always inferred or implied…but no less real.

In 1976, after being graduated with honours at the University of Florida and stints with the Orlando Sentinel newspaper and Associated Press, I was hired by General Electric in its Washington, D.C. News Bureau at $9,000 a year…about $47,000 today.

I was a gambler in my youth…perhaps a common personality trait at age 25 for many of us. Rather than wait to be told what to do in media relations…I wasn’t afraid of going all-in on what I thought was a good hand for the company.

“Make the company look good…and you’ll ride that rising tide,” Sid Williams, my first boss and mentor at GE, advised me. He was an elegant and savvy guy…married to the News co-anchor of Washington’s CBS station…and I listened to his wisdom then…and for years to come.

Working for GE was a huge plus in business back then…an unofficial M.B.A. if you moved on to another company after just a few years. It was seen by recruiters and headhunters as corporate America’s best training ground. Most people either made it big at GE…or made it big somewhere else…sometimes both.

Over the next four years I handled public and media relations for a wide range of GE’s businesses in Washington, D.C.…lighting, appliances, plastics, computer graphics and aircraft engines. Also, I trained and accompanied GE executives testifying at Congressional hearings and networked with national political and media contacts.

The hours were long, the work often challenging, but almost always it was fun. I worked with the White House on the lighting of the National Christmas Tree for three years…hobnobbed with folks mostly 20 to 30 years older than me at the Kennedy Centre and The Smithsonian Institute…dined at fancy restaurants and went to galas and events others paid to attend.

A few months into my first job at GE, Sid - my boss - called me into his office and after telling me I was performing well…above expectations…offered some friendly advice.

“Buy clothes - suits, shirts, ties and shoes - that your boss’s boss wears,” Sid explained. “You have the substance…make sure you have the style that goes with it.”

His advice was pragmatic…he knew firsthand that if you are competent and want others to accept your counsel…you should look worthy of their respect…successful.

“Tomorrow, we’re going to my haberdasher,” Sid said matter-of-factly. I looked at him nervously…haberdasher didn’t sound affordable to me. We spent a couple hours in Sid’s favourite clothing store the next afternoon.

The “haberdasher” owner was a close friend of Sid and he arranged a generous store account…I paid $100 a month without interest for a couple years for my purchases. In addition to that “sweetheart” deal, Sid bought me a suit - $800 - and simply smiled as he said, “Pay me back when you’re rich.”

In the 1970s - and perhaps always - corporate America more often than not judged you on your appearance. Once I started dressing like my “boss’s boss” I noticed people listened to me more intently in meetings and often seemed to defer to me, airline employees upgraded me to first-class seats and the maître d’hotels gave me better tables in restaurants…even without a reservation. I’m not saying it was the way the world should spin…but Sid’s advice worked.

Three years later, Sid came to me one morning with “an opportunity”…Jack Welch, a senior vice president and head of GE’s Consumer Products and Services Division needed a speechwriter and media relations operative to replace “his guy”…who just had a death in his family. Sid had advanced my name…without even asking me…and I was chosen.

Welch had just been named Vice-Chairman…an inside track on becoming Chairman and C.E.O., which he would be a year and a half later. The next day, I was on a jet from Washington, D.C. to New York’s La Guardia airport…and a limo ride to GE’s Fairfield, CT, headquarters.

I met Welch late that afternoon. He was shorter than I had imagined…no more than 5-foot 7-inches. He was all business…telling me that he needed a speech for a big GE soirée at Doral Country Club in Miami in less than two weeks, with an NBC television interview the following week in New York City.

Not much of a small-talker, he challenged me with a few questions about GE businesses. He shook his head slightly in agreement with my responses, then handed me a stack of position papers and memos he had written to “brief” me. With that, he said, “See you tomorrow…7 A.M. okay?” It was a rhetorical question.

I checked into my hotel…and read the “brief” for five hours. The next morning at seven, we met for five minutes…long enough for him to tell me what he could have said the night before. Welch liked to control…and if it was a test…I passed. I had served two four-star Generals in the U.S. Air Force…so following orders in civilian life was much easier.

The three weeks went fast…and all said and done…the speech and the television interview went well. Actually, I have worked for tougher bosses. But Welch was never likeable to me…there was a slight awkwardness - a wariness - in his manner. That, coupled with his very real habit of jumping on people in front of others meant you were never at ease around him.

Welch reigned as Chairman and C.E.O. for 20 years…by the time he was chosen I had been recruited by DuPont…eventually working with Chairman and C.E.O. Irv Shapiro…a move I never regretted.

A new book by William Cohan - “Power Failure: The Rise and Fall of an American Icon” - provides far more insights than I can offer about Welch…and it is worthy of a read. What I do know is…Jack Welch had a surprising shortcoming…an inability to see talents and skills of others that he did not possess. It was a fatal flaw. His handpicked successor, Doug Immelt, would in less than ten years run GE into the ground. Immelt got most of the blame…but Welch’s fingerprints were at the scene.

During his stint as Chairman and C.E.O., Welch passed on better successors: he passed on James McNerney, later a C.E.O. at 3M and Boeing…he passed on Robert Nardelli, later C.E.O. of Home Depot and Chrysler…he passed on David Cote, who led Honeywell to unparalleled success.

Shareholders raved about Welch for 20 years…all the while cashing record dividend checks and watching GE’s capitalization grow by leaps and bounds…to more than $500 billion. As recent as 2005 GE was the world’s largest company.

Welch died at age 82 in 2020…he lived to see GE’s worth shrink out of the Top 100 companies…just behind the maker of Oreo cookies.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.


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