Jack Welch: “Chief Who Became a Business Superstar”

Jack Welch – businessman, former Chairman and CEO of General Electric, corporate leadership “guru,” Senior Advisor to Clayton, Dubilier & Rice Funds for two decades, and more – died on March 1 at 84.

Given the outsized role Welch played in American and global business, Working Capital Review offers a compilation of some remembrances and insights posted over the last days:

CD&R: “It is hard for us to imagine that he will not be with us to push, prod, challenge, joke, and, above all, set the highest possible standards for each of us, our portfolio company executives, and the Firm.  Jack was one-of-a kind.  He had a big heart and cared deeply about people. His generosity of spirit was evident in his abiding belief that individuals can achieve great things, and he took immense pride in helping people succeed.  His handwritten notes to co-workers acknowledging a particular accomplishment – great or small – are legendary.  Jack’s contributions to CD&R will be long-lasting, and we are very fortunate to have called him a friend.”

New York Times: The piece titled “the GE Chief Who Became a Superstar,” reads: “Combative and blunt, Mr. Welch became the chief executive of General Electric in 1981, a few months after Ronald Reagan took office as president. It was a time of outsize gains for many of America’s big, multinational corporations and their leaders, who were helped by lower taxes and pro-business policies.”

“G.E. led the pack. The company’s revenue jumped nearly fivefold, to $130 billion, during Mr. Welch’s tenure, while the value of its shares on the stock market soared from $14 billion to more than $410 billion.”

It continues: “Mr. Welch distilled his management concepts into one-sentence nuggets. ‘Control your destiny, or someone else will.’ ‘Be candid with everyone.’ ‘Bureaucrats must be ridiculed and removed.’ ‘If we wait for the perfect answer, the world will pass us by.’”

“Jack was one-of-a kind.  He had a big heart and cared deeply about people. His generosity of spirit was evident in his abiding belief that individuals can achieve great things, and he took immense pride in helping people succeed.”

GE Chairman and CEO Larry Culp: “Jack was larger than life and the heart of GE for half a century. He reshaped the face of our company and the business world. Jack was a strong and constant influence throughout my career despite never having worked directly for him.”

When I last saw him, what I remember most vividly was when he asked me, ‘So how exactly are you running the company?’ Jack was still in it – committed to GE’s success. And to have Jack Welch ask me how I am running GE is pretty humbling.”

“He will be deeply missed by me and the entire GE team. And we’ll continue to honor his legacy by doing exactly what Jack would want us to do: win.”

“Welch changed GE so radically and successfully that business leaders everywhere studied his methods and tried to emulate them. He was by far the most influential manager of his generation. Fortune named him the manager of the century in 1999, and in retrospect he still merits the title.”

Geoff Colvin, Fortune: “When Welch became General Electric’s CEO in 1981, the CEOs of the Fortune500 had just named General Electric the company they admired most. Yet this paragon was managed according to an antediluvian five-volume set of rules. In one division, computers printed out seven unreadable reports daily for managers to study; one of the reports routinely stood 12 feet high. Bureaucracy had become almost comical: The head of the computer lab in the medical equipment business couldn’t sign for deliveries without a superior’s approval. Not too surprisingly, in the preceding decade GE stock had lost half its value after inflation—and still Fortune 500 chiefs said this was the best business they knew.”

“That was the world Welch inherited, hated, and transformed. GE was worth $14 billion when he took over; it was worth some $400 billion when he stepped down 20 years later, and for a time it was the most valuable company on earth. Welch changed GE so radically and successfully that business leaders everywhere studied his methods and tried to emulate them. He was by far the most influential manager of his generation. Fortune named him the manager of the century in 1999, and in retrospect he still merits the title.”

The Guardian: “His prowess at reducing employee numbers attracted the nickname “Neutron Jack”, referring to the neutron bomb, which would wipe out people but leave property unharmed. His example set the trend for the “downsizing” that swept through the business world on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1980s and 90s. It also created a goldmine for shareholders – by the time he retired in 2001 GE shares were worth more than 30 times what they had been when he took up the reins.”

“Welch came from an Irish working-class background – his father, John Sr, worked on the railways – and was born in Peabody, Massachusetts. As a child Jack lacked confidence and had a bad stutter. But his mother, Grace, pushed her only child, building his confidence and instilling a determination to win at whatever he was engaged in. ‘She kicked my ass when it was important and she hugged me when it was important,’ he said of her.”

CNBC: “Welch, who played a key role in the creation of CNBC in 1989, retired from GE in September 2001, days before the 9/11 attacks. Upon his retirement, The New York Times published an editorial that gushed over his professional record.”

“’Mr. Welch was a white-collar revolutionary, bent throughout his career at G.E. on championing radical change and smashing the complacency of the established order,” the editorial said. “His legacy is not only a changed G.E., but a changed American corporate ethos, one that prizes nimbleness, speed and regeneration over older ideals like stability, loyalty and permanence.’”

Associated Press: “Welch became one of the nation’s most well-known and highly regarded corporate leaders during his two decades as GE’s chairman and chief executive, from 1981 to 2001. He personified the so-called “cult of the CEO” during the late-1990s boom, when GE’s soaring stock price made it the most valuable company in the world.”

“A chemical engineer by training, Welch transformed the company from a maker of appliances and light bulbs into an industrial and financial services powerhouse. During his tenure, GE’s revenue grew nearly fivefold, and the firm’s market capitalization increased 30-fold.”

Wall Street Journal: “Mr. Welch’s success, driven by a hard-nosed strategy to slash less profitable businesses and unproductive employees, made him an international celebrity in the 1980s and drove GE to become the most valuable U.S. company during the 1990s. He groomed a generation of business leaders who went on to run giants such as Boeing Co. and Home Depot Inc.”

 

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