Jack Welch, G.E. Chief Who Became a Business Superstar, Dies at 84

By Steve Lohr March 2, 2020

Mr. Welch was named “manager of the century” after General Electric’s revenue jumped nearly fivefold during his tenure.

Jack Welch, who led General Electric through two decades of extraordinary corporate prosperity and became the most influential business manager of his generation, died on Sunday. He was 84.

The cause was renal failure, his wife, Suzy Welch, said. She did not say where he died.

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 was a time when successful, lavishly paid corporate executives were more admired than resented. Mr. Welch received a record severance payment of $417 million when he retired in 2001. Fortune magazine named him the “Manager of the Century,” and in 2000 The Financial Times named G.E. “the World’s Most Respected Company” for the third straight year.

Mr. Welch’s stardom extended beyond the business world. In a 2000 auction for the rights to his autobiography, Time Warner’s book unit won with a bid of $7.1 million, a record at the time. “Jack: Straight from the Gut,” written with John A. Byrne, was published the next year and eventually sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.

Mr. Welch’s memoir, published in 2001, sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.
Mr. Welch’s memoir, published in 2001, sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.The New York Times
The Welch years at G.E. combined strategic insights with managerial innovations. Mr. Welch early on recognized the rise of Asia, then led by Japan, as a manufacturing powerhouse, and he shed G.E. businesses that he deemed vulnerable, moving into new ones.

He attacked bureaucracy and made sweeping payroll cuts, creating a more entrepreneurial, if more Darwinian, corporate culture. He led the globalization of G.E.’s business, both expanding sales and manufacturing overseas. And he made G.E. far more dependent on finance, as banking and investment grew as a share of the American economy.

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.”

His goal at G.E., Mr. Welch wrote in his autobiography, was to create “a company filled with self-confident entrepreneurs who would face reality every day.”

The Welch formula was a sharp break from the management style at large corporations through the 1970s, with cadres of middle managers and large planning departments.

By the early 1990s, with G.E.’s profits and stock price rising sharply, G.E. seemed to offer a model for making big companies more nimble and competitive. “It was different way of management and it took hold,” said Joseph L. Bower, a professor emeritus at the Harvard Business School, who wrote a widely taught case study of Mr. Welch and interviewed him over the years.

Mr. Welch was also attacked when he was leading G.E., especially for slashing the G.E. work force, which earned him the nickname “Neutron Jack.” But most of the second thoughts about him and his management legacy have arisen in recent years. The superstar chief executive, laser-focused on enriching shareholders, is often criticized today as a symbol of corporate greed and economic inequity.

The widely diversified corporation that Mr. Welch built is also out of favor, an idea underlined by G.E.’s precipitous decline in the last few years.

Mr. Welch, right foreground, visiting a G.E. aircraft-engine plan in Ohion in the late 1990s.
Mr. Welch, right foreground, visiting a G.E. aircraft-engine plan in Ohion in the late 1990s. General Electric
The New York Times business columnist James B. Stewart wrote in 2017, “Hardly anyone considers Mr. Welch a management role model anymore, and the conglomerate model he championed at G.E. — that with strict discipline, you could successfully manage any business as long as your market share was first or second — has been thoroughly discredited, at least in the United States.”

The financial crisis of 2008 delivered a blow to G.E.’s fortunes. In the years before the crisis, the company had built sprawling lending operations that helped drive its growth. But the finance businesses became a crippling liability when, during the crisis, credit markets froze and borrowers struggled to pay back their loans.

G.E., like many large banks, tapped emergency government loans to help it get through the upheaval. In the years following the crisis, G.E. sold off most of its lending businesses, but other problems emerged, some of which were in its large power unit.

G.E.’s stock price now trades roughly 80 percent below the high it hit in 2000. The company has significantly lower revenue than it did that year. Last year, G.E. reported a loss of $5.4 billion.

Outsider on the Inside

During Mr. Welch’s two-decade run leading G.E., such problems seemed inconceivable. When he became chief executive and chairman, he was already a 20-year veteran of the company. But he was an insider who behaved like an outsider. “We needed a revolution,” Mr. Welch recalled in his autobiography.

The transformation of G.E. under him came in stages. In the early 1980s, he got out of manufacturing businesses where efficient Asian producers were driving down profits and gaining market share making televisions and small household appliances like irons, toasters and hair dryers.

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