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IMMEIT IN THE SPOTLIGHT: A humorous, yet thoughtful Jeffrey Immelt, chairman and chief executive officer of General Electric, fielded questions from Esquire editor in chief David Granger Thursday night during an hour-long panel hosted at Hearst Tower in Manhattan. As part of Hearst Magazines’ monthly Q&A series dubbed “MasterClass,” the talk covered topics ranging from business to personal, with a few personal tidbits thrown in there.
Granger set the lighter tone quickly with his intro. Explaining that Immelt, a friend, has grown GE’s business to over $147 billion and been named one of the world’s best chief executives three times, the editor paused, adding: “So here’s my problem with Jeff Immelt, he and I are the same age. I can’t tell you how difficult it is for me to be on the same stage with someone who is this accomplished.”
The audience, which included a gaggle of Hearst bigwigs and Cosmopolitan editor in chief Joanna Coles, who would later ask a question, (more on that later), erupted with laughter.
Highlights of the talk included Immelt’s thoughts on the changing economy and how globalization has caused GE to expand in markets that Immelt would never have imagined 13 years earlier when he was first named ceo. While China is a focal point, he pointed to “resource rich countries,” such as Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Russia as major centers of growth.
“The world is so interconnected,” he offered. “We just live in such a profoundly global arena today.”
The ceo expressed concern over Europe, a sort of conundrum when it comes to future business expansion and economic development.
“What the hell’s going to happen to Europe?” he said. “Europe’s better because it’s not so bad. It’s hard to build a growth case for like France. It’s hard to say ‘here’s where we are going to go next.’ That roadmap is hard to see right now.”
Granger directed the conversation to media, asking Immelt about his decision to sell NBC to Comcast. GE sold a 51 percent stake to Comcast in 2011 and earlier this year, it sold the remaining stake, making the entire transaction worth over $18 billion.
“It had been gnawing at me for a while,” Immelt said of his decision to sell NBC. “I found myself going to NBC reviews, and my only value added was to say, ‘let’s make better shows.’ I can go to an oil and gas equipment review and I’ll have 17 ideas. My novel idea was let’s make better shows. It was the right advice, but it wasn’t like people were going, ‘good point, Jeff.’”
Calling himself “a paranoid person,” he said he wasn’t comfortable working in an industry so dependent on fast-moving “waves of technology.”
“I was worried with that with these waves that take place, there was one we were going to miss. In the entertainment business, you have real consequences if you miss a wave,” the ceo noted. “I like businesses where the business model has really great endurance over time.”
Immelt recalled “an out of body experience” he had when reviewing a show, which was to replace NBC’s hit “Friends.”
“It was called ‘Father of the Pride,’ and it was friggin’ horrible,” Immelt said, explaining that he knew then that entertainment wasn’t his thing.
Other interesting moments came when Cosmo’s Coles asked what Immelt thought of the National Security Association scandal and how it impacted GE as a global business.
“I view cyber security as one of the company’s biggest enterprise risks. If you have to worry about your own government in your cyber security plan, that makes it too hard—that’s like a bridge too far.”
He also spoke about GE’s biggest challenge competing against multifaceted “nimble” companies such as Samsung and Amazon, both of which could become competitors in the future
“The curse of size is a thing we have to fight every day,” Immelt said, noting that he’s concerned with the “speed” and “leanness” of GE.
But perhaps the most illuminating sound byte Immelt delivered came when Granger asked him about the best advice he’s ever received.
“Know you can always get another job. Never play from fear. The reason to have a good education is to know that you can walk,” he said. “It’s amazing that in a big company you can distinguish yourself so many times in your career because you were just willing to put it on the line when so many other people were just chopping wood. Never play from fear. I got that advice early on.”