The same day that ex-GE chief exec Jack Welch was getting hitched to Suzi Wetlaufer in Boston, I was up at Dartmouth College for the school’s annual Greener Ventures entrepreneurship conference, where the featured speaker was current GE chief Jeffrey Immelt.
Immelt, a Dartmouth alum, talked about how leaders can make an impact inside big organizations – even one as large as GE, with 300,000 employees. He said he tries to foster the sense among GE’s employees that, whether you are Katie Couric or an assembly-line employee, he might materialize at any moment to talk to you about your job.
“News, knowledge, and information has to move through the system with great rapidity,” he said, “and there are severe consequences when that doesn’t happen.” Immelt sounded like he was plugging Donald Trump and ‘The Apprentice’ (an NBC hit that helps the bottom line of parent co. GE) when he said, “If I ask a question and someone says, `Why did you ask that question?’ they get fired.”
He offered this economic assessment: “This is the best economy we’ve seen in the last four years. You have a consumer that continues to buy goods and services. China is on fire. Japan is doing better. Every form of stimulus known to man is in the economy.” But he added that capital expenditures haven’t yet revived to the degree he’d like, high oil prices may prove a problem, and unemployment remained a nagging issue. Immelt said he thinks we’re in the midst of a five-to-ten year period of slower growth, relative to the 1990s.
Immelt said he tried to preserve 20 percent of his time for thinking and reconceptualizing, trying to grapple with future opportunities, rather than day-to-day business. “Good leaders are very curious, and they spend a lot of time trying to learn things.” He said he reads several dozen journals a week, from ‘Modern Railroads’ to ‘Chemical Week’ to ‘Entertainment Weekly.’
Immelt said that he personally is involved with 40 projects inside GE that represent what he called ‘Imagination Breakthroughs,’ working with the teams and overseeing their budgets. He then talked about some areas that he thought represented potential growth for GE; I’m not sure that these overlap exactly with the 40 Imagination Breakthroughs that he gets involved with, but they were:
- Energy efficiency
- Molecular medicine
Finally – I don’t want this blog entry to drag on – he talked about the characteristics of businesses that he wanted GE to be in. He said that GE, despite its size, wouldn’t necessarily jump into any business, no matter how promising. Immelt said he likes businesses that:
- Are technically based, because these can guarantee healthy profit margins
- Have multiple revenue streams, like products sales, service, and financing
- Allow GE to own the customer interface. He cited GE’s jet engine business as an example of this, where the company sells directly to airlines. Lightbulbs, on the other hand, tend to get sold through intermediaries.
“You want a business that’s tough?” Immelt asked. “Try selling light bulbs to Wal-Mart.”