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Research pioneer Walter Robb: 'I always had a warm spot for GE'

GE 125th Anniversary

Research pioneer Walter Robb: 'I always had a warm spot for GE'

Consulting, managing, investing keeps 89-year-old going
Research pioneer Walter Robb: 'I always had a warm spot for GE'
Former GE exec Walter Robb is seen at his office at Vantage Management in Latham.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

When Walter Robb left his hometown in rural Pennsylvania and went off to college in 1945, there was little doubt he would be a success. He didn't disappoint.

By 1951, he had earned his doctorate and was entertaining job offers from all over the country.

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"I was 23, I had my Ph.D. with no debt, and I had an old car, but it ran," said Robb, who left New Bloomfield, Pennsylvania, at the age of 17 and headed off to Penn State and the University of Illinois, where he immersed himself in his studies, particularly the field of chemical engineering.

"I had offers from Dupont, Monsanto and GE, but I always had a warm spot for GE," he said.

That warm spot — the result of a college scholarship given to Robb and sponsored by the company — lured him to Schenectady in 1951, when he began working at GE's Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory. After 42 years with the company, he retired in 1993 at the age of 65 and, since that time, has been involved in a number of successful ventures, primarily as founder of his own consulting company, Vantage Management Inc.

Consulting, managing and investing are what keep Robb, now 89, going these days.

"My golf game is sufficient enough to play when I have to, but playing golf three days a week would be so boring," said Robb, sitting in the Latham office he still drives to most days. "I enjoyed what I did so much I never got into any hobbies. I don't have any woodworking equipment in the basement.

"That's why I set up my own management company. That's what I love to do. This is my sport."

Robb's first major achievement at GE came in the early 1960s and involved hamsters living in a box submerged in a fishbowl. What he had done was create the first human membrane lung, a project that led to a series of promotions that quickly put him in management positions.

GE Robb at work.jpg
Walter Robb observes a hamster submerged in water during his research into creating the first artificial silicone membrane while at GE Global Research in 1963.

"I decided I wanted to get into the business end because I loved being on a staff with marketing and salespeople," he said. "GE sent me off to take a management course. I eventually became general manager of the silicon business, and then I got promoted to be a division head."

During the 1970s and '80s, Robb oversaw a number of successes at GE. He was in charge of developing the CT scanner and made marked improvements in both MRI and ultrasound machines. All three were tremendous successes and contributed greatly to the long reign of former CEO Jack Welch. Also a chemical engineer, Welch joined GE's plant in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1960, after being recruited by Robb. He had risen to CEO by 1981.

"I was a division manager reporting to him, and I liked him," Robb said of Welch, who retired from GE in 2001. "I loved him. I thought he was absolutely the best CEO this company ever had."

When Robb returned to Schenectady in 1986, after spending 13 years leading GE's Medical Systems Division in Milwaukee, he was about ready to retire. He also mulled over remaining in Wisconsin and entering the political arena. He ended up doing neither and instead became the first engineer to be named director of GE Global Research. His five predecessors had all been pure scientists.

"Jack said, 'Look, don't retire. Come back and run the research lab,"' Robb recalled. "I thought about how I would be the first engineer. It was a great experience. I was instrumental — in the leadership end, not the invention —but responsible for making GE No. 1 in digital ultrasound systems. We put Kodak out of business. We also set the gold standard for the CT scanner and the MRI machine."

When Robb finally left GE in 1993, he was awarded the National Medal of Technology "for his leadership in the development of medical imaging technologies." He also remained quite busy. Along with his duties at Vantage Management, he serves on the board of directors for numerous companies and various organizations. And in the 1990s, he was the owner of two professional sports teams (the Albany River Rats and the Albany Firebirds).

In 2014, Robb wrote "Taking Risks: Getting Ahead in Business and Life." In the book's introduction, he speaks to the concern about companies' lack of interest in research.

0A1 Robb Book.jpg

"U.S. corporations are becoming too conservative," he wrote. "They are becoming dependent on buying or licensing new technologies or acquiring the startups that invent new products. Even corporate research labs are so carefully managed that they are becoming risk-averse."

When he does find time to get away these days, he and his wife, Anne, who have three sons and five granddaughters, might head to Lake George, where they own a summer home. On Sundays, however, they're more than likely at the First Reformed Church in Schenectady.

"I belonged to the Reformed Church in my hometown, so when I came to Schenectady, I joined the choir and kept on singing until my voice gave out," he said. "I met my wife at a YWCA record hop for new GE employees. I saw her. I walked across the room and asked her to dance. That was it."

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