Jack Welch, Revered and Reviled Former Leader Of GE, Dies

Jack Welch, who as the wheeling, dealing, cost-cutting, book-writing chairman and CEO of General Electric seemed to be the no-nonsense face of American business for couple of decades a couple of decades ago, died of renal failure at his home in Manhattan on Sunday at 84. 

“There was no corporate leader like ‘neutron’ Jack. He was my friend and supporter. We made wonderful deals together. He will never be forgotten,” Donald Trump tweeted.

“Mr. Welch’s success, driven by a hard-nosed strategy to slash less profitable businesses and unproductive employees, made him an international celebrity in the 1980s and drove GE to become the most valuable U.S. company during the 1990s. He groomed a generation of business leaders who went on to run giants such as Boeing Co. and Home Depot Inc.,” Thomas Gryta writes for The Wall Street Journal.

“His retirement in 2001 brought bestselling books and more adoration, but GE’s troubles in the decades after his exit -- under his handpicked successor, Jeff Immelt  -- raised questions about Mr. Welch’s management methods and whether he pushed the conglomerate too hard,” Gryta continues.

“Jack Welch's death is unfortunate.  Will obits be rounded or perpetuate myth-making?” David Cay Johnston tweeted. “Welch cut R&D,  manipulated SEC & tax reports, left a mess from which GE & shareholders have never recovered. He gave up ~$70m retirement perks only after I exposed  their economics in [2002]."

The obits, in fact, are notably harsh.

“Jack Welch Inflicted Great Damage on Corporate America,” reads the headline over veteran business journalist Joe Nocera’s piece for Bloomberg. “His singular focus on GE’s stock price warped business culture,” the subhed continues.

“There are well-known people who are vilified during their careers only to seem heroic in retrospect. And then there are others who are lionized in their prime, and only later do we realize how harmful their actions truly were. So it is with Jack Welch.… I know we’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but his effect on American capitalism was too profound — and too destructive — to go unmentioned,” Nocera writes.

“While at the helm, Welch bought and sold scores of businesses, expanding the industrial giant into financial services and consulting. GE Capital Bank was founded seven years into his tenure. His acquisitions included RCA  --  then-owner of NBC -- and Kidder Peabody, the brokerage that became entangled in an insider trading scandal,” writes  Marty Steinberg for CNBC.

"He also streamlined the conglomerate’s bloated bureaucracy by giving managers free rein to make changes they deemed beneficial to the bottom line,” Steinberg adds.

That would account for the headline in Schenectady’s The Daily Gazette: “Reign of late GE CEO Jack Welch not fondly recalled in Schenectady.”

“His methods were divisive. Nicknamed ‘Neutron Jack’ for his massive firings of GE employees, he was hailed in 1999 as ‘manager of the century’ by Fortune magazine,” Jia Lynn Yang writes  for The Washington Post.

“On paper, the results were undeniable. In his 21 years at the helm of GE, Mr. Welch increased annual revenue from $25 billion to $130 billion; profits rose to $15 billion from $1.5 billion; and the company’s total value on the stock market grew 30-fold to more than $400 billion  --  which at one point made it the most valuable public company in the United States,” Yang continues.

“While Fortune rightly dubbed Welch ‘Manager of the Century’ in 1999, it also was directionally right in 2006, when Betsy Morris wrote that Welch’s rules were being displaced by new ones. Subsequent years have only made those changes clearer,” writes  Fortune CEO Alan Murray. He goes on to list a few of them, including this:

“Welch ‘went nuts’ over Six Sigma, as a tool to reduce cost in his businesses. But Six Sigma is about fixing existing processes. In today’s world of rapid technology change, the best leaders are focusing on how to completely rethink their processes and disrupt their businesses. It’s a very different skill set.”

Author and former investment banker William D. Cohen writes in The New York Times about a confessional last lunch he had with Welch at a golf club on Nantucket, where they both have homes, last August. Welch offered to give Cohen a lift home in his Jeep Cherokee.

“When we got to the end of the mile-long club driveway, Jack turned left onto the main Nantucket thoroughfare leading to the village of Sconset. I assumed he would stay in the lane where he belonged. But he didn’t. For some reason, he decided the rules of the road did not apply to him. He drove the Jeep down the middle of the road, straddling the double-yellow lines,” Cohen writes.

The cars coming at them just pulled off to the side.

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