What Jack Welch’s time at General Electric gave us The tweets of Elon Musk.
The person who was once called “manager of the century” made it possible for CEOs to work as internet trolls on the side.
When Jack Welch died on March 1, 2020, people paid him many tributes. He was the longtime CEO of General Electric, and many people thought he was the best CEO of all time.
David Zaslav, who was one of Welch’s followers and the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, thought of him as almost a god. “Jack pointed the way. He went everywhere. Mr. Zaslav said, “He was better than everyone else.” “What he did at G.E. changed the way businesses work today.”
The words of Mr. Zaslav were meant to be nothing but praise. During the 20 years that Mr. Welch was CEO, from 1981 to 2001, he made G.E. the most valuable company in the world. He also trained a number of people who went on to run major companies of their own and set the standard for other CEOs to follow.
But a closer look at Welch’s legacy shows that he was more than just the “Manager of the Century,” which is what Fortune magazine called him when he retired.
Instead, he had a strong and long-lasting effect on American business. He changed how workers are treated, how shareholders are rewarded, and how CEOs act in a time when people are becoming more divided. When Donald J. Trump is elected president, when Jeff Bezos and the White House argue about inflation, and when Elon Musk makes a deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion by using the poop emoji, this is the world that Jack Welch helped make.
I’ve been writing the Corner Office column for The Times for a few years now. During that time, I’ve talked to hundreds of executives about their jobs and how they lead. And Mr. Welch’s name kept coming up again and again. Some people wanted to be like him, while others wanted to be the opposite of everything he stood for. In either case, it was clear that Mr. Welch still looms over the business world, living rent-free in the minds of CEOs all over the world.
And in more than 100 interviews I did for my new book, “The Man Who Broke Capitalism,” which this article is based on, many different people said some version of the same thing: Even though Mr. Welch hasn’t been CEO of G.E. for more than 20 years, his work still affects millions of American homes.
After Mr. Welch retired in September 2001 with a $417 million payout, the company went into a downward spiral from which it would never recover.
His students, on the other hand, went on to run Home Depot, Albertson’s, Chrysler, and Boeing, among many others. Most of them did poorly.
Since Mr. Welch came to power decades ago, the economy as a whole has come to reflect his skewed priorities. Wages stopped going up, and jobs moved abroad. CEO pay went through the roof, and buybacks and dividends went through the roof. Companies found ways to pay less in taxes, and factories shut down.
Not only did Mr. Welch have a lasting effect on the economy, but he also changed what it meant to be a boss. He became the personification of an aggressive, materialistic style of management that is still used today.