How Jack Welch’s Reign at G.E. Gave Us Elon Musk’s Twitter Feed
The onetime ‘manager of the century’ paved the way for C.E.O.s to moonlight as internet trolls.
By David Gelles
David Gelles, a Times reporter, is the author of “The Man Who Broke Capitalism,” a new book on Jack Welch, from which this article is adapted.
Part 1 of 2
When Jack Welch died on March 1, 2020, tributes poured in for the longtime chief executive of General Electric, whom many revered as the greatest chief executive of all time.
David Zaslav, the C.E.O. of Warner Bros. Discovery and a Welch disciple, remembered him as an almost godlike figure. “Jack set the path. He saw the whole world. He was above the whole world,” Mr. Zaslav said. “What he created at G.E. became the way companies now operate.”
Mr. Zaslav’s words were meant as unequivocal praise. During Mr. Welch’s two decades in power — from 1981 to 2001 — he turned G.E. into the most valuable company in the world, groomed a flock of protégés who went on to run major companies of their own, and set the standard by which other C.E.O.s were measured.
Yet a closer examination of the Welch legacy reveals that he was not simply the “Manager of the Century,” as Fortune magazine crowned him upon his retirement.
Rather, he exerted a powerful and lasting influence on American business, informing how workers are treated, how shareholders are rewarded and how C.E.O.s comport themselves in an increasingly divisive age. When Donald J. Trump is elected president, when Jeff Bezos argues about inflation with the White House, when Elon Musk negotiates his $44 billion deal to buy Twitter by using the po-p emoji — this is the world that Jack Welch helped create.
For the past several years, I have written the Corner Office column for The Times, speaking with hundreds of executives about their careers and approaches to leadership. And time after time, Mr. Welch’s name kept coming up. Some wanted to model themselves after him, while others sought to define themselves in opposition to all he stood for. Either way, it was clear that Mr. Welch still looms over the corporate world, living rent-free in the minds of C.E.O.s around the globe.
And in more than 100 conversations for “The Man Who Broke Capitalism,” my new book, from which this article is adapted, a broad range of people said some version of the same thing: While it has been more than two decades since Mr. Welch was C.E.O. of G.E., his legacy still affects millions of American households.
Almost immediately after Mr. Welch retired in September 2001 with a $417 million severance package, G.E. went into a tailspin from which it would never recover.
His pupils, though, went on to run dozens of other major companies, including Home Depot, Albertson’s, Chrysler and Boeing. Most of them failed.
And in the decades since Mr. Welch assumed power, the economy at large has come to resemble his skewed priorities. Wages stagnated and jobs moved overseas. C.E.O. pay went stratospheric and buybacks and dividends boomed. Factories closed and companies found ways to pay fewer taxes.
Beyond his enduring influence on the economy, Mr. Welch also redefined what it meant to be a boss, personifying an aggressive, materialistic style of management that endures to this day.
“Jack was the rock star C.E.O. of my era,” said Lynn Forester de Rothschild, one of the rare female media moguls of the 1980s. “We all thought Jack was doing everything right and that success was defined by meeting quarterly earnings to the penny.”
In retirement, Mr. Welch continued to hold sway over the business world as an elder statesman, penning books and columns, and appearing on cable news to praise the executives he had groomed and continue his as----t on taxation and regulation.
Mr. Welch also pursued an unexpected retirement pastime: He became an internet troll. His old friend Donald J. Trump seemed to lead the way on many conspiracy theories that Mr. Welch embraced. But by 2012, Mr. Welch was picking fights of his own with his online adversaries, trying to own the libs on Twitter and promulgating conspiracy theories about the Obama administration.
It was a career defined by a ruthless devotion to maximizing short-term profits at any cost, and punctuated by a foray into misinformation. And it opened the door to an era where billionaire C.E.O.s are endowed with vast power and near total impunity.
G.E., too, is still reckoning with Mr. Welch’s legacy. For two decades after he retired, a succession of C.E.O.s tried and failed to return the company to its former glory. Then last year, G.E. management admitted defeat and made an announcement — the company would be broken up for good.
G.E. was worth $14 billion when Mr. Welch became C.E.O., just months after Ronald Reagan took office. Not long before Mr. Welch retired, just days before Sept. 11, 2001, the company was worth $600 billion, the most valuable company on Earth.
But the ways in which Mr. Welch created so much shareholder value often did more harm than good.
He was a compulsive dealmaker, fueling G.E.’s growth with a relentless series of mergers and acquisitions that took G.E. far from its industrial roots and set in motion a wave of corporate consolidation that would reduce competition in industries as diverse as airlines and media.
He closed factories and fired employees by the tens of thousands, unleashing a series of mass layoffs that destabilized the American working class. He devised systems like “stack ranking,” which mandated that the bottom 10 percent of workers be fired each year, and took root at other companies. And he embraced offshoring and outsourcing, sending labor overseas and turning to other companies to provide back-office functions like accounting and printing.
It was enough to earn him the nickname he hated but could never shake: “Neutron Jack,” a reference to the neutron bo-b, which purportedly ki--s people while leaving buildings intact.
But more than the downsizing or the dealmaking, it was Mr. Welch’s obsession with finance that allowed him to steadily inflate G.E.’s valuation in the public markets.
G.E. was an industrial company when he took over — making most of its money selling appliances, light bulbs, power turbines and jet engines. By the time he retired, the company derived much of its profit from GE Capital, which was essentially a giant unregulated bank. Mr. Welch called it “the blob” — it was an amorphous, ever-changing collection of financial assets, capable of delivering whatever adjustments were most advantageous to the parent company in a moment’s notice.
The finance division became G.E.’s center of gravity, ultimately accounting for 40 percent of its revenue and 60 percent of its profit. With so much money coursing through the finance division, Mr. Welch used it to his advantage, shifting zeros throughout a sprawling international web of subsidiaries, and extracting whatever he needed to meet or beat analysts’ estimates for nearly 80 quarters in a row, an unprecedented run. It was what one influential analyst called “earnings on demand.”
Mr. Welch denied that GE Capital was employed as a tool to keep the company’s stock price rising. “We managed businesses — not earnings,” he once said. But his own deputies told a different story, acknowledging that the finance division was used to keep the stock price ticking up.
“There was very little transparency,” said Beth Comstock, a longtime G.E. marketing executive. “G.E. had a financial army that was able to close the quarter the way we’d said we would.”
Mr. Welch was never called to account for this questionable financial engineering while he was C.E.O. But in 2009, G.E. announced that it had settled sweeping accounting fraud charges with the Securities and Exchange Commission that pointed to decades of impropriety.
G.E. had been overstating profits in a bid to jack up its share price in the years after Mr. Welch retired, using myriad well-honed tactics to fudge the numbers, the S.E.C. said.
“G.E. bent the accounting rules beyond the breaking point,” remarked Robert Khuzami, director of the S.E.C.’s enforcement division at the time.
This wasn’t a one-off anomaly, as the S.E.C. made clear. Distorting earnings was a well established practice inside the company. In its complaint, the S.E.C. took pains to note that G.E. met or beat analyst expectations every quarter from 1995 through 2004.