Jack Welch, legendary GE chairman and CEO, dead at 84

Jack Welch, who led General Electric as chairman and CEO for two decades and became a business legend in the process, died March 2, 2020.

He was known by many names: “Neutron Jack,” “Manager of the Century” and “the Tiger Woods of CEOs.” Jack Welch, who led General Electric as chairman and CEO for two decades and became a business legend in the process, died Monday. He was 84.

His death was announced by his wife, Suzy, on Monday, according to CNBC.

Welch became one of the nation’s most well-known and highly regarded corporate leaders during his two decades as GE’s chairman and chief executive, from 1981 to 2001. He personified the so-called “cult of the CEO” during the late-1990s boom, when GE’s soaring stock price made it the most valuable company in the world.

Welch grew GE’s market value from $12 billion to $410 billion. Under his leadership, GE became the world’s most valuable company after Microsoft.

Welch’s results-driven management approach and hands-on style were credited with helping GE turn a financial corner, although some of the success came at the expense of thousands of employees who lost their jobs in Welch’s relentless efforts to cut costs and rid GE of unprofitable businesses.

Business success and outspokenness brought him wide fame. In 1999, Fortune magazine named Welch as its “Manager of the Century.”

For his first book, “Jack: Straight From the Gut,” Welch received a $7.1 million advance. Although released on the very morning of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the book became a best-seller, and led to frequent speaking engagements where he took his candor on stage.

»Click here to get the new AJC Mobile App

“From the day I joined GE to the day I was named CEO, 20 years later, my bosses cautioned me about my candor,” Welch wrote in ‘Straight from the Gut.’ “I was labeled abrasive and consistently warned my candor would soon get in the way of my career ... and I’m telling you that it was candor that helped make it work.”

Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch addresses students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., Sept. 27, 2006. In September, the 70-year-old Welch began his first classroom job, teaching an eight-session weekly course at MIT's Sloan School of Management. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch addresses students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., Sept. 27, 2006. In September, the 70-year-old Welch began his first classroom job, teaching an eight-session weekly course at MIT's Sloan School of Management. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Credit: ELISE AMENDOLA

Credit: ELISE AMENDOLA

At the peak of his career, Welch ruled over a global empire that had its hand in industries from jet engines to health care. Welch bought and sold scores of businesses, expanding GE into financial services and consulting. GE Capital Bank was founded seven years into his tenure.

Welch was chairman and CEO of General Electric between 1981 and 2001. During his tenure at GE, the company's value rose 4,000%. When he retired from GE, Welch received a severance payment of $417 million, the largest such payment in business history.

"Jack -Straight From The Gut" by Jack Welch
"Jack -Straight From The Gut" by Jack Welch

Credit: SEE CAPTION

Credit: SEE CAPTION

In the 2005 book, “Winning,” Welch wrote that he would like to be remembered “as a huge advocate of candor and meritocracy, and believing everyone deserves a chance. And I’d like to be remembered for trying to make the case that you can never let yourself be a victim.”

Along with Welch’s fame came greater scrutiny. Welch found himself defending his retirement compensation. Amid a wave of corporate scandals, details of Welch’s GE perks emerged in court papers during his 2002 divorce from his wife of 13 years, Jane Beasley. He received millions of dollars in benefits, including unlimited personal use of GE’s planes, office space and financial services.

After the perks became public, Welch reimbursed the company for many of them, and paid for use of aircraft and other services.

Welch was also active on Twitter, where he opined on everything from politics to business to sports and had 1.4 million followers.

Some of those opinions generated controversy.

He questioned a monthly jobs report in October 2012 that showed the unemployment rate had fallen below 8% for the first time in three and a half years. The report came two days after President Barack Obama had performed poorly in his first debate with Romney and a month before the election.

“Unbelievable jobs numbers,” he tweeted. “These Chicago guys will do anything...can’t debate so change numbers.”

President Clinton points out some of the finer points of the first hole at Farm Neck Country Club in Oak Bluffs, Mass. to Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric, before a round of golf there Friday, Aug. 22, 1997. (AP Photo/Ruth Fremson)
President Clinton points out some of the finer points of the first hole at Farm Neck Country Club in Oak Bluffs, Mass. to Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric, before a round of golf there Friday, Aug. 22, 1997. (AP Photo/Ruth Fremson)

Credit: RUTH FREMSON

Credit: RUTH FREMSON

In 2010, Welch founded the Jack Welch Management Institute, a business school that offers executive education and management training.

Welch was born Nov. 19, 1935, in Peabody, Massachusetts. His father was a conductor for the Boston & Maine Railroad, and his mother was a homemaker. The younger Welch studied chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in 1960.

Welch joined GE in 1960 as a chemical engineer in its plastics division in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He became a vice president in 1972 and vice chairman seven years later. In April 1981, at age 45, he succeeded Reginald H. Jones as chairman and chief executive officer.

In Other News