IN HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY, published soon after retiring from GE in 2001, Jack Welch explained the challenge he had faced when taking over as chairman and chief executive of the iconic American company 20 years earlier. The firm had grown top-heavy and sclerotic. Some divisions had not posted profits in over a decade. In his farewell speech, Reginald Jones, his patrician predecessor, likened the industrial conglomerate poetically to the Queen Mary, a majestic ocean liner, caught in a storm.
In his inaugural address Mr Welch maintained the nautical metaphor—with less decorum and a greater sense of urgency. He told his charges that he wanted GE to be like a speedboat in the harbour “trying to move like hell”. The threat from sophisticated competitors from Japan was growing. He did not want GE to go the way of Detroit’s carmakers or IBM, which failed to adapt. As corporate America mourns his death on March 1st, aged 84, the company he reinvented is itself struggling to keep up with the times.
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