GE Welch

Welch took over a GE that was at the time, a major company. At the time, he viewed GE as bloated and needing to change. While he might’ve been right about that, the approach he took was perhaps less ideal.

One of the worst things he helped make commonplace among American companies is the concept of stack ranking. The way it worked was like this: people were divided into three groups: A, B and C. A’s were the top performers who needed to be rewarded generously, B were adequate performers who should be allowed to stay, and then C were those who needed to be fired.

So far so good right? Well, not exactly. For Welch, these three buckets could be separated into the top 20%, the middle 70%, and the bottom 10% (20/70/10). Based on the above points, the bottom 10% would thus need to be fired annually.

Welch and GE Made Lean

In the short term, this helped in making the company lean and look more productive, increasing the bottom-line and portraying an image of success. However, the long term consequences of such a change was cultural degradation and the introduction of new bloat and waste (running all of those performance reviews and firing and rehiring so many people takes a lot of money.) Consider the case of a perfectly adequate team: the entire team has achieved their targets and has contributed to the company as per their job description. The issue? In stack ranking, 10% of this team would still have to be fired even though everyone did their job. Unsurprisingly, the introduction of this competitive atmosphere where it isn’t enough to succeed, one must be better than their peers, results in backstabbing, competition, and a host of issues which eventually weaken a company’s competitive edge.

This was only a part of Welch’s general treatment of workers as numbers rather than humans. Aggressive cost-cutting, offshoring, etc. were the norm under Welch’s regime and he would destroy entire divisions. This again, was great in the short-term but bad in the long term. Welch clearly had a dim view of company culture and believed it to be unimportant.

The other major issue of Welch’s was the acquisition of hundreds and hundreds of businesses, as part of Welch’s goal of acquiring his way to the top. On the surface, this is what Welch did; on paper, he didn’t destroy the main profit makers of GE so much as create new ones, primarily in the form of its financial arm.

Earnings and Lies

The result was that this allowed GE and Welch to play with the numbers in a way that allowed him to make sure that GE was always meeting targets set by Wall Street; in order to generate the right earnings, simply buy or sell certain assets, write-off others, etc. and when your company is an acquisition machine, it’s not too hard to find the right numbers. This process helped expand GE into a mega-conglomerate but again, ultimately left the company in a weaker than expected state.

In particular, on paper the core business of GE became its financial arm, as that was where all the funny business with the numbers was happening (nothing explicitly illegal though). Ignoring the damage the Welch did to GE’s profit centers through his horrible business practices, this was a huge part of why GE declined so rapidly in the years following. GE’s valuation was based on an inaccurate picture of its profits and value, so when the truth started coming out (especially with the Great Recession collapsing financial services profits), GE was quick to follow.

As for why Welch was able to get away with it all? Well, the answer was because he was delivering. He hit the earnings targets, he made the board and shareholders very happy, by all accounts GE was the paragon of success and everything was going right. What Welch did was unprecedented, and it’s hard to really understate that. For all of his faults, he had America tricked into believing that what he could do was unique and that he could avoid the realities of the economy and cyclical markets, that no matter what was going on, GE was special. Welch died a rich, rich man and many, many people profited greatly off of GE during its 20 year bull-run.