Chairman & CEO, GE
“In business, the notion of ‘leave us alone and let us make money’ doesn’t cut it today. We’re living in an era that demands accountability, transparency, and trust; those three things will be even more important in the future.”
When he was tapped to head GE in 2001, Jeff Immelt had already built an impressive nineteen-year career at the storied company that pioneered the development of everything from electric fans to jet engines to x-ray machines. Today, under Immelt’s leadership, GE is a $173 billion organization that still has roots in its past, even as it rides a wave of 21st-century innovation in clean energy, water treatment, and medical technology that will transform lives for decades to come.
The stack of magazines on Jeff Immelt’s night table—Railway Age, Aviation Week, Broadcasting & Cable—represents just a few of the industries encompassed by General Electric, the company founded by Thomas Edison where Immelt is entering his ninth year as chairman and CEO. “I’m a voracious reader,” Immelt remarks, recalling that the roots of GE’s “ecomagination” business initiative can be traced in part to 3,000 pages of reports written on global warming, brought along on vacation a few years ago. “I wanted GE’s response to environmental realities to be something that I understood and felt myself,” the Cincinnati native says with characteristic ease and candor.
Those words are often used to describe Immelt, yet they belie the extreme complexity involved in leading a company that employs more than 300,000 people around the world, each working in areas that range from wind turbines to television, from asset management to locomotives. “No matter what the product, for over 130 years GE has been about imagination at work,” says Immelt. “It’s always been a combination of the dreaming and the doing.”
Immelt came to GE straight out of HBS, holding various positions in the company’s plastics and appliance businesses before moving to GE Medical Systems, where he was named CEO in 1997. Reflecting on his years at GE, Immelt recalls many moments of intense, even painful, learning. “In 1989, I was running the appliance service business in the midst of a big product recall for one of our compressors. I was 33 years old, managing 7,000 people, and it was a crisis all the time. There were many hard decisions to make every day, but boy, I learned a ton.”
GE has seen significant change since Immelt’s tenure began, with acquisitions in energy, aviation, water treatment, and healthcare. Over half of GE’s revenues came from outside the United States last year, proving the company’s standing as a truly global entity. And Immelt has made it a priority to ensure that the ranks of upper management reflect this new reality. “The way we train our people is global, and the way we develop products is global,” he says, noting that GE has research centers in Munich, Shanghai, and Bangalore, in addition to its U.S. location in Niskayuna, New York. “That’s only going to accelerate over time.”
The breakthroughs occurring in those research centers are easy to get excited about. As an example, Immelt describes a group of protein biomarkers that have been identified as the precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. “There’s still no cure,” he observes, “but if you know that someone has the early signs of the disease and combine that with some of the new drugs the pharmaceutical companies have developed, it becomes possible to maintain a high level of functionality for much longer. That could greatly improve millions of lives and save the healthcare system $50 or $60 billion each year.” Immelt also touts GE’s hybrid locomotive: “It’s very green, but it’s being applied in the ‘muscleman’ sector. That’s a nice juxtaposition of technology and need.”
Married, with a college-age daughter, Immelt’s time outside GE is devoted primarily to his family. “We like going to the movies—normal things,” he says. “When you move a lot, as we did for my different jobs within GE, you go through periods when you’re each other’s best friend.” Support at home is clearly a necessity for what is considered one of the most demanding and public jobs in business. The experience of running GE has been characterized as more of a marathon than a sprint; fortunately, Immelt is prepared to go the distance.