The Jack Welch Conundrum

Jack Welch
Photo by Brooks Kraft/Getty Images
William D. Cohan
November 14, 2021

The news that GE, the venerable conglomerate founded in 1892, was committing an act of corporate meiosis and splitting itself into three pieces—a jet-engine manufacturing company; a health-care machine manufacturing company; and a power business—leads me to ask a deceptively simple question. Who lost GE, and when?

Was it Jack Welch, the revered “C.E.O. of the Century,” as Fortune dubbed him, who made GE the most valuable and respected company in the world, but perhaps made it too hot to handle in the process? Did Jack pick the wrong successor in Jeff Immelt? After all, he had a bench that included, at one time or another, Dave Calhoun, the C.E.O. of Boeing; David Zaslav, the C.E.O. of Discovery Communications and the architect of the still-pending Hollywood blockbuster merger with the Warner Media assets; David Cote, who went on to become the highly successful and respected C.E.O. of Honeywell after Jack forced him out of GE; Jim McNerney, one of Calhoun’s predecessors atop Boeing; and Bob Nardelli, who after losing out to Immelt became the C.E.O. of Home Depot, and then Chrysler.

Or were the seeds of GE’s demise already planted by the time the Immelt era had begun? While Immelt inherited a straight flush from Jack four days before September 11, he quickly found out that the world had changed after both the attacks on the World Trade Center—GE made the jet engines on the planes that hit the towers and GE had partially reinsured both towers—and the imposition of the Sarbanes-Oxley law, which came in the wake of the corporate scandals that plagued the late 90s. Had Jeff played Jack’s winning hand poorly?