The Saga of Neutron Jack - Profit At Any Cost

March 18, 2007
C R Sridhar

Even in an age as cynical as ours reverence is not dead. But in what is aptly called the age of corporate capitalism, the feeling of reverence finds strange expression: through hagiography, which extols not the virtues of saints but the avarice of business magnates. The media whose task is to keep the hoi polloi in a perpetual state of wonder achieves this by heaping praise on the business gods of corporate America. The pride of place in that pantheon belongs to Jack Welch, who was the CEO of General Electric. On channels such as NBC or CNBC, which GE owned, one can see Welch spinning his views on how to make millions. He looks out at us from the covers of books, grinning wolfishly, and seeming to pity us for being so ordinary. His testament is titled 'Jack: Straight from the Gut.'

Corporate Leviathan

Welch presided over the destiny of GE from 1981- 2001. He ruled like a despot and impressed upon GE his style of management, which was blunt, abrasive and brash. He transformed the company into a corporate leviathan. GE has manufacturing plants in thirty-four countries around the world. Besides electrical products and lighting products, GE makes plastics, aircraft engines, locomotives, appliances, giant turbines, and medical diagnostic equipment. The company also offers financial services through GE Capital.

In 1980 GE recorded revenues of roughly $26.8 billion; in 2000 they were nearly $130 billion. When Welch took over, the stock market judged the company to be worth about $14 billion. In 2001 it was roughly $490 billion, making it the most valuable one in the world. Welch pushed the price of GE stock up more than 1000 percent from 1982 to 1997.1 These results left Wall Street gasping with admiration. The New York Times, Time and Fortune have lionized Jack Welch, referring to him as Business Hero of All Time, Businessman of the Era, Businessman of the Millennium. In Ivy League business schools his methods are discussed in hushed tones. The canonization of Jack Welch seems complete.

Was there a dark side to Saint Jack? This is the question that Thomas F. O'Boyle answers unequivocally in At Any Cost. Carefully researched and masterfully written, the book is a savage indictment of predatory Capitalism and of the values that Welch represented. His ruthless drive to keep pushing up 'the bottom line' of GE's stock value made him very attractive to Wall Street. His bare-knuckle approach to management, coupled with his obsessive cutting of costs, created stupendous shareholder value. But in the long run Welch was a disaster to the society: his "way of doing business carries with it a heavy penalty," points out O'Boyle, "not necessarily for him or stockholders, but for the people who do his bidding and for the government and society, which must often clean up his mess." 2

GE changed the quality of life for Americans: it brought good things to life, as the jingle says. The company was socially responsible: the advertised claim that their 'efforts are creating more goods for more people at less cost, but also more and better jobs at higher wages' was not misleading. GE products were built to last, and the company had always adhered to high standards of quality control. When Welch took over he soon changed the priorities: GE neglected research, engineering, and manufacturing, and began to concentrate more on financial services, as the returns were more dramatic there. This was dictated by the need to pander to Wall Street, which is obsessed with quarterly earnings, and treats stock value as the sole measure of corporate success.

The personality of Welch mirrored the era of financial manipulation. Exceedingly vain, ambitious and autocratic, he pursued a career of profit making to the exclusion of everything else. Loyalty, trust and tradition were only for the weak. His intellectual mentors were Karl Von Clausewitz and Helmuth Von Molkte, the Prussian military theorists who advanced the concept of total war.3 Business operations were conducted like war, with the sole purpose of higher profits. The corporation was besieged with enemies; and the duty of every employee was to make GE the victor over all.

Ruthless Downsizing

He cut costs by ruthlessly downsizing the workforce. In his zeal to maximize profits Welch would sack employees. He earned the epithet 'Neutron' because he destroyed people while leaving the business intact. The year before Welch became the CEO the company had employed 402,000 people, out of which 2,85,000 were in United States; it had a net profit of $1.5 billion. By 2000 its net profit had swelled to $12.7 billion: but the workforce had been cut to 2,22,000.

The chilling impact was felt most in manufacturing, where GE sold or closed one-third of its plants. The retrenchment policies practiced by Welch to shore up 'the bottom line' were widely admired by other CEO's, and became the way to have a 'lean and mean' company.4 The social impact was cataclysmic. The abrupt and unfair dismissal of GE's employees produced alcoholism, domestic violence, and broken homes. Some after years of dedicated service committed suicide. The pain of such blighted lives does not figure as costs to corporations: but these costs are borne by society.

Questionable Business Methods

Welch's addiction to earnings and the destructive urge to cut costs pushed GE to adopt questionable business methods. One of the biggest scandals to rock the company was the case of Kidder Peabody, the securities firm that lost GE $1 billion before it was sold to Paine Webber in 1994. People who had been held up as model employees were charged with fraud (but finally sanctioned only for negligence and for violating trading norms).5 GE was also involved in paying kickbacks and bribes to General Rami Dotan of the Israeli air force, in order to secure orders for the jet engines. In this case GE pleaded guilty to four charges of felony.6

Between 1985-1992 GE was involved in more instances of fraud, in their dealings with the Pentagon, than any other military contractor: there were fifteen criminal convictions and civil judgments against it.7 GE's synthetic diamond business and the De Beers cartel were indicted for price fixing.8 The fiasco of the ill-fated rotary compressor nearly cost GE its refrigerator business. Hundreds of refrigerators worked badly, leading to widespread customer complaints. GE had to replace the defective compressors at a cost of $450 million dollars. The reason for this debacle was that the testing of the compressor had been hurried through to meet the deadline set by Welch. The dumping of polychlorinated biphenyls into the Hudson River, eventually causing a public health catastrophe, stained GE's reputation: because Welch kept stonewalling the environmental authority's attempts to make the company pay for dredging the poisonous chemical from the river.9

Obsession With Profits

Thomas O'Boyle views Welch's obsession with profit at any cost as part of a larger problem confronting Corporate America: which is debasement of values such as loyalty, compassion, and trust in human relationship. The reduction of the worker to a mere factor of production, to a cog in a machine devoted to profit maximizing, makes downsizing acceptable. The glorification of military values in management theory makes cruelty justifiable as business tactic. This is best exemplified by the publication of books with titles like Attila the Hun and Management, The Art of War for Executives and Machiavelli and Management. The lessons to be gleaned from these books are that moral values are impediments to profit, and that it is a sound tactic to harm the other person before he can harm you.

For Welch the overriding purpose of business enterprise was strife and eternal competition where only the 'lean and mean' would survive. Boyle argues that such attitudes distorted the fine balance between business, stockholders, workers and society: 'a higher purpose, a sense of service toward communities, people, or humankind- none of this was never sincerely articulated or instilled.' This has given rise to the cynical feeling among Americans at large that in big business 'people are valued only for their material worth or usefulness, and are tossed aside when they become a hindrance to those who have power over them.' 10 Work for most people becomes, in the words of Studs Terkel, ' a sort of dying through Monday to Friday'. 11 The price of pursuing profit at any cost is paid by society in the form of alienation and violence.

Boyle sums up thus: "history will eventually set the Welch record straight. Above all, he will be held responsible for GE's multiple misadventures: transgressions in which entire businesses were destroyed and thousands of people lost their jobs. Business historians will come to understand the anxiety and insecurity Welch instilled and how that contributed to a make-money-at-all-costs mentality that was a perfect hothouse for growing calamity. Those historians will wonder why Welch was never held accountable, why tough questions were never asked, why shareholders and directors looked the other way." 12

The phenomenon of Neutron Jack is as inexplicable as the bull market of the nineties, which defied both logic and imagination. Stocks that in 1990 were worth $3 trillion, representing the accretion of two hundred years of trading, saw their value spiral to an unbelievable $15 trillion in a decade. Perhaps Welch should be judged by that financial bubble: maybe Neutron Jack was as overvalued as his stocks.

Note: All references to page numbers in the endnotes are from the book At Any Cost by Thomas F. O'Boyle.
1. Page 11.
2. Page 12.
3. Page 68.
4. From 1987 to 1991 big American corporations lowered their net payroll by 2.4 million workers. The downsizing happened when corporations made huge earnings. The profits went to shareholders and CEO's who gave themselves generous compensation packages.
5. Page 13.
6. Pages 255-276.
7. Page 13.
8. Page 14.
9. Page 378.
10. Page 366.
11. Page 366.
12. Page 12.

Sridhar is a Koshy's regular, a Tinto Brass fan, and a cynical Bangalorean
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Anand Menon
March 20, 2007
04:13 AM

Welch's hagiographers have declared him "the Vince Lombardi of business," "a heroic form of CEO," "the world's greatest business leader," "the manager of the century," and "CEO of the century." You'd almost think Welch was single-handedly responsible for the growth of the entire global economy. Oh, wait, he's been credited with that as well: "As the most widely admired, studied, and imitated CEO of his time," argued Fortune, "Welch has enriched not only GE's shareholders but also the shareholders of companies around the globe. His total economic impact is impossible to calculate but must be a staggering multiple of his GE performance."

CEOs are often depicted as almost single-handedly responsible for the good fortunes of their companies. (This is a notion CEOs embrace when crafting or defending their compensation packages; Welch himself has benefited from this reasoning, to the tune of an estimated $93.1 million in 1999 and $122.5 million some time ago.) So it was Lou Gerstner who turned around IBM, Lee Iacocca who saved Chrysler, and Jack Welch who "revived" GE. But sometimes the truth is just the reverse. Although most observers discuss GE as the house that Jack built, it's more true to say that GE is the house that built Jack.

John Francis Welch (i.e., Jack) took the reins at GE in 1981, following a long, exhaustive, and competitive succession process overseen by his predecessor, Reg Jones. But, contrary to the notion that Welch inherited a moribund company, things were going pretty well already. Over the course of Jones's stint at the top, which began in 1972, revenue had grown at an average annual rate of 12 percent, and earnings had grown at 16 percent. The spin offered by Robert Slater, author of The New GE: How Jack Welch Revived an American Institution (as well as three other Welch volumes), is that Welch "did not want to wait until General Electric was in trouble.... To keep those figures from declining, Welch knew he had to push the company to become more competitive." Janet Lowe, author of Jack Welch Speaks and the recent biography Welch: An American Icon, echoes this line: "The challenge for Welch was to spot trouble before it occurred, to take preventative measures, and to make the most of GE's tremendous momentum."

Fine. And in fact GE has averaged a solid 12 percent annual earnings growth throughout Welch's time at the top, and about 15 percent over the last eight years. But if no trouble had yet "occurred" when he took over, and GE already boasted "tremendous momentum," why credit Welch with a revival rather than with maintaining a past record of excellence? The truth is that while CEO biographers need a larger-than-life hero, GE did not. Indeed, as James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras explain in their celebrated and insightful 1994 book Built to Last, the firm has enjoyed success under a series of innovative chief executives stretching back to the early 1900s.

So why is Welch routinely described as the greatest corporate leader of his generation, if not of the century? Part of the answer is that, during Welch's career, America's relationship with business leaders has changed. For starters, business in general, filtered through coverage of the stock market on networks like CNBC, receives much more public attention than it did in 1980. Add to this the rise of technology companies, from Microsoft to Apple to Dell, that appeared to come from nowhere on the strength of individuals whose entrepreneurial achievements were inspiring in a way few political figures could match. Looking to make business accessible in an age of economic boom and innovation, the press frequently told business stories through the prism of individuals — Iacocca, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Welch. In his day, Reg Jones was also lauded by his peers as the nation's most admired and influential CEO. It's just that the wider public wasn't that interested in such things back then.

But there's another explanation as well. Welch has given Wall Street what it wants. And, in the '80s and '90s, what it wanted above all else were companies that delivered results predictably, with no surprises, quarter by quarter. As noted above, GE trades at a distinct and impressive premium to the P/E of other companies. This is something Welch achieved. When he took over, GE was trading at a P/E of eight, roughly in line with the broader market. Typically, a company's P/E shrinks as its revenues and earnings increase; investors get less and less generous in what they're willing to pay for earnings, for the logical reason that percentage gains in earnings growth get tougher to replicate as the numbers get bigger. Nevertheless, GE under Welch has done the opposite: The market is apparently a far greater believer in GE's growth potential now than it was in 1981. That's a neat trick when you consider that today's earnings dwarf those of two decades ago.

One reason the markets may have rewarded Welch's GE with such a generous multiple is that the company has mastered the quarterly earnings ritual with almost eerie efficiency. "Wall Street loves the more than 100 quarters" — it's now 103 — "of uninterrupted growth in net income that have occurred under Mr. Welch," The New York Times summarized late last year. This isn't strictly accurate, since that string began in 1975, six years before Welch took over. Still, it's an incredible feat to roll out orderly growth from continuing operations on a quarterly basis for that long, through a wide variety of short-term economic twists and turns.

Incredible may be right. As the Welch era winds down, some critics have suggested that the methods by which GE produces its vaunted quarterly growth numbers may be less than pristine. A persuasive story by Jon Birger in the November 2000 issue of Money magazine argued that the company uses "a number of confusing but apparently legal gimmicks to achieve its vaunted consistency." (GE responded by sending a note to its stock analysts labeling Money's article "an unprecedented collection of nonsense.") Fortune (arguably Welch's biggest booster) followed up on March 19 with a story called "Accounting in Wonderland." Each wrestled in the thicket of restructuring charges, onetime special gains, and sales and acquisitions.

Observers are particularly suspicious of GE's record of using unique gains and restructuring charges to offset each other without disrupting that quarterly earnings flow. Most recently, charges associated with shutting down the Montgomery Ward chain, which was owned by GE Capital, were offset by a onetime gain from the sale of the last of the firm's stake in PaineWebber. Had these events occurred further apart, they would have ultimately balanced out the same way, but they could have created either a dip in earnings growth or a spike that would have been hard to top the next earnings season. And it does seem curious that GE's many onetime gains, acquisitions, and special charges invariably and smoothly balance each other every three months.

Then there's the company's pension plan. As noted in a 1999 column by Alan Abelson in Barron's, echoed in Money, GE's pension plan has been fully funded for years; it is invested in stocks and fixed-income securities, and when gains in the fund outpace the amount the company must pay, the difference falls into its reported income. This amount has grown at a faster clip than overall earnings in the last few years, and in 2000 it totaled $1.74 billion, or about 13.7 percent of net. (GE has lately stopped using the phrase "total pension plan income" to describe this figure, instead labeling it "cost reduction from pension" in its latest annual report; but it's the same thing.) The point is that this number has nothing to do with GE's actual businesses, but it helps the company meet its aggressive revenue-growth targets each quarter.

Of course, corporate accounting can get extremely creative without running afoul of the law — or even running afoul of good business practices — and no one has suggested that whatever gimmickry may be going on masks a flawed business. The danger is in letting the short-term mania to "make the quarter" undermine the balance sheet's long-term health. There's no evidence that it has so far, but such things take a long time to play out.

Wikepedia encyclopedia adds...".....Some people believe that Welch is given too much credit for GE's success. They contend that individual managers are responsible for the company's success. For example, Gary C. Wendt led GE Capital to contribute nearly 40% of the company's total earnings and Robert C. Wright worked to effect a turnaround at NBC, leading it to five years of double-digit earnings growth and the premier position in prime time ratings. It is also held that Welch did not rescue GE from great losses as the company had 16% annual earnings growth during the tenure of his predecessor, Reginald H. Jones. Critics also say that "the pressure Welch imposes leads some employees to cut corners, possibly contributing to some of the defense-contracting scandals that have plagued GE, or to the humiliating Kidder, Peabody & Co. bond-trading scheme of the early 1990s that generated bogus profits" ([3]). See also Vitality curve.

Welch has also received criticism over the years for his lack of compassion for the middle class and working class. Welch has publicly stated that he is not concerned with the discrepancy between the salaries of top-paid CEOs and those of average workers. When asked about the problem of excessive CEO pay, Welch has stated that such allegations are "outrageous" and has vehemently opposed proposed SEC reforms affecting executive compensation. Countering the public uproar over excessive executive pay (including backdating stock options, golden parachutes for nonperformance, extravagant retirement packages, etc.), Welch stated that CEO compensation should continue to be dictated by the "free market," without interference from government or other outside agencies [4]. In addition, Welch is a vocal opponent of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, the wide-ranging legislation which established or enhanced new standards for corporate governance and accounting [5]...."

Its very clear that Jack Welch is a product of media hype.Times of India even gives him more than a few column inches of space wherein he espouses his views on how to run a business.Don't let the beaming faces of Jack and Suzy Welch at the top of the column fool you....from the space which Jack manages to hog it looks like Suzy has no role to play in all this....the smiling visage of the woman behind the successful man serves only to somewhat soften the hard line which Jack ruthlessly advocates in most of his columns,...often peppering his articles with grave pronouncements like"be afraid....very afraid"....which was in response to a question on whether outsourcing to China should be considered when the parent company is losing market share in the U.S

The article by Sridhar serves as a timely reminder of the dangers of putting people on a pedestal....the dangers being far more here in India where we have a largely uncritical ,fawning,lick-spittle press...

your views desi-critics??.....

Anand Menon
March 20, 2007
04:16 AM

Could someone remove comment #2 ...Its just a repetition

March 20, 2007
04:28 AM

Done, but that should be an article in itself, if you'd write for us.

Anand Menon
March 20, 2007
01:38 PM

Thank you Aaman, but i'm not in Sridhars class when it comes to research .....would appreciate removal of unwanted comments just the same:)

March 24, 2007
08:33 AM

Brilliant article from the house of Sridhar!!! Interestingly the damage inflicted upon several new ventures by uncritically following Welch's model is frightening. Shamelessly we glamourized this kind of 'ruthless capitalism' in the business academia and ran raring reviews. GE never made profits through productive application of assets but sheer financial engineering, no great technological breakthroughs acquired by this process. Surely they continued to innovate but owes more to its legacy of scientific research rather than management stunts!!!

March 26, 2007
02:41 PM

Some nice gentle pretentious talk!! thanks for all this tirade, reminds one of luxurious chattering class of the 80s.. very fashionable indeed!!! Why do we buy shares in GE or send our children to work there!!! hello....

cr sridhar
March 28, 2007
08:00 AM

dear Pal,
Thanks for your feedback.
The point of the article is that GE fired productive workers when the corporation made profits.The savings in payroll went to the CEO's.
I am indeed mystified as to why our children work there or more to the point how many still do?

March 30, 2007
03:31 AM


What are the alternatives to the chattering classes?
Let me guess- stick big mac in our mouths, roll our eyes and watch CNBC spin yarns about shareholder values.

March 30, 2007
03:57 AM

Hi Morris

Really a good point CNBC gives observation of the corporate as they feel and later show their morron face the scrips fail but are least bothered about the investor who listen and invest in the scrips. Good comment and I join you in the same spirit.

April 6, 2007
12:28 AM

Understandably our friend PAL feels strongly about the hypocrisy of working for GE while being critical of it. BUT PAL dont you feel too often that we remain silent, accepting of bad practices owing to the idea of job creation? Whats wrong indeed to be scathing about GE while our boys and girls work there? GE held a lot of our corporate managers spellbound with its loud mantra of success, its time someone like Sridhar starts unravellign the dark truths. Personally I feel this idea of job creation by enterprises is lot more complex and sometimes hold us hostage, since we feel thankful to the corporations for creating jobs. One should start looking at good governance and accountability in the corporate sector with regards to its contribution to the economy in terms of job creation.

April 6, 2007
06:49 AM

Chris -it is not Sridhar who's done the exposing LMAO,he's merely reviewing the book "At any cost" by Thomas F. O'Boyle .I would love to see similar research done on Indian companies like Reliance for example.

April 6, 2007
08:41 AM

thanks for the response.
Jack Welch was largely responsible for downsizing the work force when GE made huge money. The scandal of appropriating the pay cuts as CEO compensation is a pernicious practice.The sacked workers had to face social alienation, divorce and alcoholism.

In recent times Jack has come in for criticism and his management style has attracted a lot of negative comments.

April 6, 2007
08:45 AM

Excellent suggestion!A similar research on Reliance is long overdue.

April 6, 2007
08:49 AM

i agree we must do some research on the Indian Corporate sector as well.Should Sridhar alone be doing the work and some of us just add some "MASALA"in desi criitics.org ????.
Why don't all'like mided people'come forward with some material on the NOTORIOUS GROWTH OF RELIANCE INDUSTRIES????? If we cannot meet in person (i don't know how many live in Bangalore)then transmitt our findings and send material through E-mail to Sridahr.
My idea was to start an effective 'READERS AND WRITERS FORUM'.We can put our minds and bring out a paper on the State Of The Indian Economy and where the F**k the Finance minister is taking us.
Incidentally lets not blame PAL for not being aware of J.W or G.E. as his exposure on this topic has been through mainstrem media such as CNBC TV (owend by G.E.) hence his views are not critical enough.
PAL i suggest you go through some od these books On media by Noam Chosky and Eward.S.Herman titled 'Manufacturing Consent',David Koerten's master peice titled 'When Corporations rule the world,brilliant narration by Naomi Klien in her book titled 'NO LOGO'which talks about Multinational profiteering thro cheap labour and off course the most progressive and critical magazine called 'THE MONTHLY REVIEW PRESS'.
Chomsky's book is a must and if you go through the book from page to page you can take on C.R.Sridhar in a debate.Am sure you will find the above not only interesting but they are 'Alternative Readings'which are important to know about functioning of MNC'S and how they manipulate to be on the top of NYSE and Dow Jones listings.
PAL please read JOEL BAKAN's book on 'CORPORATIONS'-a pathological persuit for profit and power which is also available in C.D.form.You can listen to the criticisms of some of the present critical thinkers on this debate.

April 6, 2007
09:13 AM

A very good idea Soros.I think people in India(inlcuding media) are scared to take on big corporates like Reliance and I don't blame them.No one wants to share the same fate of a Manjunath

April 6, 2007
11:34 AM

Thanks Kela for confirming that Sridhar is not an undercover journalist expose' but merely a book reviewer!!!(just a sardonic sense of humor)
The most important aspect here is to be 'intelligent' enough with sharp sensitivities to read through the propaganda. One can do this with the information available in the public domain, our ineptitude stems not from a lack of information but from fear of prosperity(a very flimsy one indeed), how often you hear 'lets not rock the boat'. We need competing views to provide a better picture about our paradigms of business growth and job creation.

Indian companies have been covered in the media and business journals, and I may offer to substantiate my point by articles published in Academy of Management Review, Harvard Business Review,MIT sloan review, some of the most prestigious ones to be accounted for in the domain of business theory. However the coverage emphasized our management skills in low-cost leveraging of educated workforce, cost-productivity gains and surely to offer bit of knowledge base as well available in this country. IAM WILLING TO BE REFUTED MERCILESSLY ON THIS POINT.

So Indian business houses have not made a significant mark on the very fundamentals of business theory through glaring instances. Personally this also surprised me while reading Friedman's WORLD IS FLAT and CHINDIA, I was expecting some very escoteric Vedantic Indian style of management deep-rooted in Indian traditions but the discourse was on cost-productivity gains. I know I might be accused of being romantic illusionist seeking kinky business concepts in the realm of Indian management, but lets not forget Kaizen in Japan was exotic to outsiders as well. Lastly Iam glad this debate on Reliance has been generated here since we can appreciate the serious 'delusions of grandeur' we are entertaining collectively; the idea of Indian business practices being the fountainhead of 21st century business ideas. This reminds me of a very banal cafe' debates on Indian technology missions being path-breaking or mundane like C-DOT or Supercomputer, which the rhetroic at that time seemed to me a real cultic conviction that India was on its way to surpass USA in its technological leadership. Still today I dont have the answer clarified in my mind. THE SAME HOLDS TRUE FOR INDIAN COMPANIES CHAMPIONING THE GLORIFIED CAMPAIGN OF CHANGING AND IMPACTING BUSINESS PARADIGMS. I know this is complete digression but wanted to have a go at this idea that we have corporate behemoths like GE in the current Indian context who can engineer business models to suit their profit-agenda.

Lastly IF YOU CANT DAZZLE THEM WITH YOUR BRILLIANCE THEN BAFFLE THEM WITH YOUR BULLS...!!! I dont know which I have done but next time someone trumpets the success of corporate models of the BRIC nations you know what to look for!!!

April 6, 2007
11:46 AM

i am baffled now :)

April 7, 2007
10:21 PM

Kela should I feel delighted in accomplishing my mission or deprived at not putting you through the pain of formulating a long respone?? I knew I was walking into this danger zone when posted my last comment.
Anyway banter aside hope we keep the debate going about Indian corporations and their global march!!! Thanks for your substantial inputs and thoughts on the myths pervading our narratives about Indian corporate giants,

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