GE boss stresses growth, innovation, education

July 4, 2005


'The most admired companies of this generation are going to be companies that can drive growth," says General Electric CEO Jeffery Immelt, who visited Chicago to talk innovation. "That's where I want GE to be."

Hey, all you cost-cutters out there. Listen up. GE is the bellwether business of our generation. GE popularized leading-edge business concepts like Six Sigma, 4E's, Differentiation and Work-Out. Under Immelt's predecessor, the legendary Jack Welch, GE proved American corporations can speak candidly, confront reality, compete to win and perform beyond expectations.

On Welch's watch, GE grew into a $152 billion powerhouse, through mergers and cost-cutting. Welch's latest book, Winning, is a must-read for anyone who wants to succeed in business.

"When you lead a company, you have to use your own words," Immelt says. "I loved working for Jack Welch. I put things in my own vocabulary. There is no business person with more energy than Jack Welch, but 2005 is different than 2000, and different from 1995. We have to go forward into the future."

Strategy for growth

Immelt isn't resting on Welch's laurels. He's staking his own course. His focus is on technology, innovation and growth.

"When you look at the growth rate of the company, it's already 8 or 9 percent, which is more than our historical average," Immelt says. While productivity is always going to be important, Immelt sees organic growth as mandatory.

How do you achieve a culture of innovation?

"It takes leadership, starting at the top, but more importantly it takes funding," Immelt says. "You have to reallocate funds so that you are constantly funding those things that are going to change the future for your company and your customers."

Immelt is a big Chicago fan. He's employs 2,400 workers here. "Everybody wants to live in Chicago," he says.

But he worries about Illinois' reputation. "This is the tort capital of the world. Every company knows that," Immelt says. "People love living here, but as a state, Illinois is not as competitive as some other states."

Immelt has positive words for Gov. Blagojevich's plan to attract the U.S. Department of Energy's $1 billion FutureGen project. The plan would create the first zero emissions, coal-based power plant. "We would work shoulder-to-shoulder with him," Immelt says. "Illinois is a natural. You've got both the coal, and you also have great utilities that can utilize it."

Immelt has an eye on the bottom line, too, but he's willing to take appropriate risks.

He's led his company into the "eco-imagination" initiative. He sees opportunities in technologies that avoid fossil fuels, increase energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Using GE's technology prowess, Immelt believes he can create business and environmental wins.

"We came up with a theme: 'Green can be green,' " says Immelt, illustrating his point with GE's technology for coal gasification, hybrid locomotives, water desalinization and recyclable plastics.

Immelt thinks GE "can make money. Our customers can make money, and things are going to be better for the environment."

Immelt only becomes tongue-tied when asked which GE innovation is his favorite. Like a parent who loves all his children, Immelt pauses.

He's excited by GE's opportunities in personalized medicine and coal gasification, but it's clearly a forced choice. GE simply teems with technology opportunities. Immelt seems fascinated by them all.

Why work for GE?

Maybe that's why Immelt is confident when asked why today's college grads should work at GE.

"Because you can live your dreams," Immelt says. "GE has the scale to create the future. There aren't too many companies that can."

Yet Immelt worries about American competitiveness.

"We've got to keep focused on innovation. We've got to keep focused on education," he says. "This is a country that graduated more people with sports exercise degrees than electrical engineers. That's not lining us up to compete with China. That's not a winning hand in this world of global competition."

That's something worth pondering this Independence Day.

Michael Krauss is a Chicago area tech writer and consultant.


 ©2005 Marion Consulting Partners