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The inside story of GE's success

July 01, 2008 11:51 IST
Book extract from Bill Lane's Jacked Up - The Inside Story of How Jack Welch Talked GE into Becoming the World's Greatest Company.

Welch would never allow himself to be upstaged. The closest I ever saw to that occurring was, ironically, on his home turf - the auditorium at GE headquarters in Fairfield.

One of the bigger stock brokerage houses had sponsored a "conversation," hooked up by satellite, to customer audiences all over the world. The "conversation" was run by an interlocutor - and a good one - sitting between Jack and the legendary Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines. Herb's Boeing 737s were powered by our engines, and Jack - and everyone else - loved the guy.

One hundred and fifty or so GE employees filled the seats for what promised to be a fun hour or so watching these two superstars, both at the tops of their games, kick around the business issues of the day.

Kelleher is a riot, a pistol. At the time, it was reported that he kept, without apology, a bottle of Jack Daniel's or Wild Turkey for "celebrating" - a Southwest tradition - in his office desk. He was on his game that day, running around the non-smoking auditorium stage smoking and joking, and firing witty and hilarious broadsides at Jack and the moderator as the audience roared.

He was totally dominating the show I was sitting in the back with GE's head of HR and after watching Welch's laughter morph into a fixed smile, I nudged my seatmate and said, "Watch Jack's face. He's being upstaged. I've never seen this happen. Watch his face. He'll do something. Watch his face!"

And sure enough, within a minute or so Jack turned on "the Irish" and began throwing hilarious bombs at both Herb and the moderator, and even at us in the audience. Kelleher continued to run around the stage smoking and firing salvos to which Welch responded, and then counterattacked. The crowd was laughing so hard you couldn't hear half the jabs they were throwing at each other. It was like watching two little boys competing for attention in the schoolyard - I almost expected one of them to pull his pants down to upstage the other.

The event came out to a draw, with the audience as winners; but it underlined for me, once again, Welch's absolute unwillingness to cede top dog and best-in-show honors to anyone, on any venue, anywhere.

Total egomania, of course. But what's your point? Warren Buffett is another of Jack's pals and golf partners. Aside from being the world's most respected investor, he is also the author of the world's second most highly regarded CEO annual report letter. One morning I got one of those day-making Jack notes - it was actually a "forward" of a note Buffett had written to Jack on a copy of the GE annual report letter.

Warren had written something like "none better than this in the world"; and Jack had graciously written, "Bill - it doesn't get any better than this," and sent it down to me.

Buffett was set to introduce Welch at some huge forum somewhere. We had worked on Jack's remarks, and he was happy with them. But the looming specter - the nightmare - that was terrifying Welch was that he was going to be introduced by Buffett, who is notoriously mischievous and witty.

"I know he's going to give me a 'shot,' I just know it. Bill, what do you think it might be?" "I don't know, Jack. Maybe something about golf?" "Yeah, maybe. Probably. I've got something I can come back with on that. But what else? I know he's gonna do it, and I have to nail him when I get up to give the speech."

And so we went through the possibilities for the "shot" Warren would deliver, and war-gamed each one of them with appropriate retorts. And it was fun, I guess, although I was under enormous pressure to come up with, in seconds, lines that would leave Warren at the bottom of a smoking crater on stage, for the crime of daring to drop a bomb on Jack for his golf, his magazine covers, his hair, size, or whatever.

We spent an hour or so working up an arsenal of retaliatory strikes. Jack probably had people lined up in his outer office waiting their turn to be fired, and here he was, running overtime with a speechwriter, trying to construct a retort to an attack Buffett had probably not even constructed at the time.

As I recall, he dropped a prepared bomb on Buffett after Buffett "zinged" him. The crowd went wild after the zing and bomb. Buffett is one of the many people in Welch's life that he truly enjoys. He called me once from Bill Gates' estate in Washington, and described how Buffett and he had stumbled around in their rooms in the dark trying to find how to turn on the lights that Jack vaguely described as being controlled by a PC in the center of the room. I didn't understand, but that's not important. He loves the Warren-man.

Another time he called from somewhere in Mexico and described how Gates, "in his sandy shorts, with his pregnant wife," was walking along the beach "negotiating with 'trinket guys.' ... kidnappers everywhere."


Author: Bill Lane (Jack Welch's speechwriter for 20 years)
Publisher: Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Company
Price: Rs 325
Page: 324
ISBN: 9780070229563

Strategist Team in Mumbai
Source: source