If corporate America were a college, General Electric would be the football hero, class president and valedictorian.
The firm’s yearbook stats would include impressive facts: In 2007, Fortune magazine ranked GE as the most admired company in a survey of more than 3,300 executives, citing its impressive AAA credit rating and century-long history of producing the world’s best managers. Regardless of the dynamic state of the U.S. economy, company revenues are projected to grow by 15 percent in 2008. And every year, the corporation launches a new company…larger than current-sized Nike.
So it’s no surprise wonder that GE Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt is optimistic about the future of the world’s second-largest corporation: It’s as bright as the light bulb invented by company founder Thomas Edison.
“What we’ve basically positioned the company to be is a safe and reliable growth company,” Immelt said to a packed room of Carnegie Mellon faculty, students and alumni during the USA TODAY CEO Forum. “We’re in the right places with the right products at the right time.”
Undergraduate business major Jared Itkowitz was the student catalyst for the Forum’s appearance at Carnegie Mellon. The junior from the Tepper School of Business contacted USA TODAY in 2006, inviting the paper to bring its highly regarded CEO event to campus. Itkowitz, who is also student senate chair and majoring in Chinese studies along with business, introduced Carnegie Mellon President Jerry Cohon at the standing-room only event that was part of the Tepper School's W.L. Mellon CEO Speakers Series.
In an hour studded with the occasional self-deprecating joke about his own economic forecasting skills (“CEOs are lousy economists,” he remarked), a relaxed and confident Immelt answered questions first from USA TODAY senior media reporter David Lieberman and later, from the audience on topics ranging from the environmental impact of large businesses — “it’s more of a business decision than a moral decision” — to the Hollywood writers’ strike (“The differences are profound … Prepare yourself for lots of reality TV.”)
But one theme that wove into nearly every issue was globalization, and with good reason. Immelt revealed that in 2007, for the first time in its 125-year history, more of GE’s revenue came from outside the United States than within it.
“I’ve never seen a time in my career when the global economy is less related to the U.S. economy,” said Immelt.
He emphasized China in particular among emerging markets, saying, “The decision that every company has to make about China is: Are you in or are you out?”
And if the answer is out, “we move backwards, not forward,” Immelt said.
Mindful of concerns over China’s environmental and human rights practices, Immelt reminded the audience that his company must, by its nature, be bipartisan, and said it can’t pressure China, only advise.
“They have a lot of work to do,” he acknowledged. “Do I agree with everything? No. But that’s probably true of my mother-in-law as well.”
“I’m the CEO of a public company,” Immelt added. “I don’t ever want to confuse that by taking a position that confuses GE investors.”
He believes the 2008 summer Olympics, which will be held in Beijing and broadcast on GE-owned NBC, will help showcase China to the United States the way the 1964 Tokyo games helped open the eyes of many Americans to modern Japan.
“The Olympics is the great global brand of all times,” Immelt said. “If you’re a global company like ours, you get a natural positive spin.”
Throughout the hour, Immelt spoke about the traits he considers crucial to good leadership: curiosity, people skills, and perseverance. And while transportable general management skills will always be important, he encouraged business students to “develop your own touch; develop your own feel.”
General Electric prides itself on having “a healthy disrespect for history,” as well as its tough-mindedness, Immelt said, echoing the famously hard-nosed philosophy of his predecessor, Jack Welch.
“You can’t rest on the way things have always been done, even if that way has been extraordinarily successful. We’re a company that always refreshes itself, and I think you have to be tough-minded about what fits and what doesn’t,” Immelt said.
Immelt’s perspective on globalization sometimes touched directly on the student audience. He urged students to remember that, even more than in previous generations, they are competing with talent worldwide for jobs — a competition that is getting increasingly stiff. Their ambition has to match their competitors, he said.
“They want what you have,” he said. “I’m going to build the future of GE with you or with them, but I will not be denied.”
However, he softened his message somewhat when he noted how impressed and optimistic he is about the young talent now graduating from college.
“Don’t be loyal to me,” he told the audience. “If you come to work for GE, you’re going to be at the forefront of history. I sell the vision and the mission.”