Jack Welch is the former CEO of General Electric.
Born in Salem, Massachusetts, the son of a bus conductor, he studied chemical engineering at the university of Massachusetts, gaining a PhD in the same subject from the university of Illinois. He joined General Electric’s plastics division in 1960. He devoted the rest of his working life to the company.
His rise was meteoric. At age 33 he became one of the company’s youngest general managers. He subsequently served as vice president and sector executive for the consumer products and services sector and finally he was vice chairman and executive officer. In December 1980, after a little over twenty years in the company, he was named GE’s eighth CEO, the youngest in the company’s history.
Welch had an immense impact on corporate America, setting standards of best practice for its senior executives. He always led by example. He had shown during his rise to greatness the potential of GE’s plastics divisions. He also laid the foundations for the success of GE Capital. As CEO he took a number of innovative steps to promote the disparate elements of what had become an unmanageable conglomerate. He announced to the various sectors that unless they could become either the number 1 or the number 2 in their respective industries they would be spun off. He commented: ‘My main job was developing talent. I was a gardener providing water and other nourishment to our top 750 people. Of course, I had to pull out some weeds, too.’ His talent-nurturing sometimes took unusual forms. He also introduced the practice of establishing “anti-groups” within certain divisions whose role was to put forward the opposite to official policy in a deliberate attempt to encourage debate and discourage group-thinking.
He earned a reputation for being endlessly creative, never being hide-bound by convention when it came to solving a problem.
He introduced Six Sigma Quality Management at GE, after its usefulness had been shown in Motorola. St Augustine asked God to make him perfect “but not yet”. He was an early advocate of Six Sigma, a means of achieving near-perfection in manufacturing by gradual, incremental steps, monitored by specially-trained experts called Black Belts and Master Black Belts.
Welch also became known for his desire to communicate. He is reputed to have written three to four thousand notes to members of his staff every year. GE’s financial success came at the expense of extensive layoffs. During the process of streamlining the company, over 100,000 workers lost their job. His perceived ruthlessness earned him the moniker “Neutron Jack”. He hated bureaucracy of any form, and always sought people who were dedicated to change. He was also an active teacher at the GE Leadership Centre in Crottonville.
After nearly two decades at the helm Jack Welch prepared for departure followed by a smooth succession. The person who was to take up his mantle was chosen from within the GE organisation, through a long and rigorous process. This resulted in the anointing of Jeffrey Immelt as the prospective CEO from April 2001 when Welch promised to “walk away and keep walking”. Things didn’t just go to script. GE had acquired the Honeywell Company in 1990, and Welch announced he wanted to stay in charge to oversee the integration of this prized plant into his garden. However, the takeover was scuttled when the European Commission raised objections that the resultant company would have a dominant and potentially distorting role in the aviation financing sector in Europe. Welch was thus denied a last charge towards the setting sun. Most observers felt this did not do him any harm. At GE he was a larger-than-life figure.
Since retiring Jack Welch has continued to consult a number of Fortune 500 firms. He also found the time to write his memoirs: Jack: Straight from the Gut (2001). Outside the US the book had the less macho subtitle of Jack: What I've Learned Leading a Great Company and Great People It went to number one in the best-sellers’ chart in America. He has since added Winning: The Ultimate Business How-To Book (2005). This “…is a book for the people in business who sweat, get their nails dirty, hire, fire, make hard decisions, and pay the price when those decisions are wrong,"
(With John A. Byrne and Mike Barnicle)
Jack: Straight from the Gut (2001)
(with Suzy Welch)
Winning: The Ultimate Business How-To Book (2005)