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Happy Birthday, Jack Welch, Former CEO of General Electric

November 19, 2009
by Liz Colville
Jack Welch was CEO of General Electric for 20 years, beginning his tenure in the midst of 1981’s tough economic conditions and leading the company to enormous growth. An author, husband and father of four, Welch, along with his wife, Suzy, is a leadership guru whose viewpoint is routinely requested by companies and business students.

Early Days

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John Francis Welch, Jr. was born on November 19, 1935, in Salem, Massachusetts, to a railroad conductor, John, and Grace, a housewife. Welch played hockey as a youth and claims that he would have tried to become a professional hockey player if he had not gone into business. He earned a B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Massachusetts and an M.S. and PhD from the University of Illinois.

Welch credits his mother with much of his confidence and hardworking attitude, which have prevailed in spite of a stutter and his often emotional approach to business. In a 2005 interview with CNN, Welch described an episode after a losing hockey game. Welch, the team captain, threw his hockey stick across the ice and skulked into the locker room. “The guys were coming in getting undressed and a lady in a print dress comes charging in … and she grabs me by the shirt and says: ‘You punk. If you don’t know how to lose you shouldn’t play the game.’ … [It] was a great learning lesson. People say to me you have to lose don’t you. And I say yea, but I know how to do it. You get up off the floor and you get at the next one.”
In 1960, he began working for GE as an engineer and became vice president by 1972, Vice Chairman in 1979 and Chairman and CEO in 1981.

Welch's Notable Accomplishments

At the helm of General Electric, Jack Welch grew the company substantially. Over the course of 20 years, he helped to increase the value of the company “from $13 billion to several hundred billion,” according to a biography of Welch on the GE Web site. Looking back on Welch’s tenure, GE credits Welch’s success to his dismissal of “bureaucracy and archaic business ways.” He had a hands-off approach to upper management and “ran GE like a small dynamic business.”

Under Welch, GE acquired several new businesses and grew its financial arm, GE Capital. It branched into several sectors, including technology, finance, media, consumer electronics, health care and energy.

Welch wrote the book “Winning” with his wife, Suzy, in 2005, and has developed the philosophy of that book into a wider viewpoint conveyed through the couple’s articles for magazines like BusinessWeek and in lectures.

The Welches’ Web site, The Welch Way, is named for their syndicated weekly newspaper and magazine column; on the site, Jack and Suzy Welch impart a down-to-earth, candid and humanized approach to business, whether the subject is hiring, firing or mergers and acquisitions. The site is the central hub of the Welches’ ongoing career as public speakers and advisors to an array of businesses and students.

The Rest of the Story

When the financial situation took a sharp turn for the worse in late September 2008, Jack Welch expressed his concern for what he saw as “one hell of a deep downturn” for the U.S. economy. At the World Business Forum on September 20, Welch said he had changed his mind about how grave the economic situation was: the first quarter of 2009 will be “brutal,” Welch said, adding that “[t]here is no credit available.”

But in late October, Welch added a note of hope to his prediction, saying he believed the economy would start to improve in “late 2009.” Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” Welch dismissed claims that GE would suffer greatly from the downturn. The $700 billion federal bailout would start to pay off for companies like GE and the economy, and would give companies a “better foundation” going forward, he said.

Welch is currently the head of Jack Welch, LLC, advising Fortune 500 businesses. He has taught at MIT’s Sloan Business School, and he is a special partner at Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, a private equity firm. He is also a consultant to Interactive Corp (IAC).
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