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Foss: Jack Welch's ruthless leadership style left a tarnish on his legacy

Foss: Jack Welch's ruthless leadership style left a tarnish on his legacy

Foss: Jack Welch's ruthless leadership style left a tarnish on his legacy
Photographer: CHESTER HIGGINS JR./NEW YORK TIMES (LEFT); GAZETTE FILE PHOTO (RIGHT)

If you were a shareholder when Jack Welch was running General Electric, you probably loved him. 

Under Welch's watch GE became the most valuable company in the world. The market value of its stock rose from $14 billion to more than $400 billion, an eye-popping increase of 2,700 percent. 

That's impressive. 

It's why Welch, who died Sunday night, will long be remembered as a towering figure in the world of business management, a transformative CEO whose tremendous success made him something of a corporate rock star. In 1999, Fortune magazine declared him "Manager of the Century." 

If this is all there was to say about Welch, his legacy as one of the greatest business minds of the 20th century would be secure. 

His ruthless leadership style and penchant for slashing jobs earned him the nickname Neutron Jack, with communities such as Schenectady suffering the consequences of his scorched-earth approach to management.

In 1980, there were 24,000 GE employees in the Electric City. By 1995, that number had fallen to 6,720. 

I can't look at those numbers without reflecting upon the enormous human cost of Welch's relentless push for better performance. Some will say that change was necessary. I won't disagree. But did it have to be executed in such a ruthless fashion? 

"The work used to be rewarding," one former GE employee, Mary Kuykendall, told The Daily Gazette in an article looking at the impact of the company's downsizing on Schenectady. "You had a friendly atmosphere, and you worked out of loyalty." 

After Welch took over, "Then it felt like you had to become part of this dog-eat-dog world, and I could never buy into the Welch strategy of working out of fear and being so greedy." 

Welch stepped down before the Great Recession, but some business writers have re-evaluated his time at GE, and found it wanting. 

It's a re-evaluation that, in my mind, is long overdue, and should cause us to regard celebrity CEOs with a more critical eye. 

One question that's emerged in the years since Welch stepped down is whether his business strategy, with its emphasis on the rapid acquisition of companies that were unrelated to its core businesses, was really sustainable. GE Capital, the company's financial services division, seems especially ill-advised in retrospect. 

"The fall of GE is at least in part a story of excess adulation of its erstwhile super CEO, Jack Welch," USA Today opined in 2018. "One of the reasons GE's valuation has dropped so much is that it was vastly inflated in the 1990s as gullible Wall Street analysts bought into the myth of Welch."

Jeff Spross, business and economics writer for The Week.com, writes that Welch's legacy "lies in ashes: A warning for others of the dangers in 1980s-style Wall Street financialization and of an overwhelming focus on shareholder value above all else." 

Welch's influence is undeniable. 

But his approach to business looks worse and worse as the years go by. 

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