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Jack Welch, who built General Electric into industrial powerhouse, dies at 84

Jack Welch served as CEO of GE for about two decades.
Jack Welch served as CEO of GE for about two decades.michael indresano/For the Boston Globe

With a determination that merged the fierce competitiveness of his Salem boyhood and the distilled wisdom of a masterful chief executive, Jack Welch remade General Electric into one of the world’s most powerful companies and became one of the nation’s most storied business leaders.

He was 84 and had been living in New York City for many years when he died Sunday. His wife, Suzy Welch, said the cause was renal failure.

Upon taking over in 1981 as GE’s chief executive officer, “I thought about some of the real values I grew up on — candor, the ability to face reality, see the world the way it is, not the way you hope it will be,” he recalled in a Globe interview a decade later. “Now that’s the way you talk in Salem. That’s not profound ‘businessese’ from some great guru, that’s basic living.”

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Applying such homespun concepts to GE brought eye-popping results. On his watch, the company’s stock market valuation rose from $14 billion to more than $410 billion. At one point, Fortune magazine dubbed him “manager of the century.”

“Jack was larger than life and the heart of GE for half a century,'' Larry Culp, GE’s current chief executive, said in a statement. “He reshaped the face of our company and the business world.”

Rising through the corporate world from a blue-collar background — neither of his parents finished high school — Mr. Welch had bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees before beginning his GE career in 1960.

“His brain was faster, deeper, wider than any brain I’ve ever encountered,” his wife said. “That’s what made him so interesting. He saw things other people didn’t see.”

The mix of agile intellect and unpretentious upbringing served Mr. Welch well. In various GE management roles, he refined the plain talk of his youth into single-sentence adages, sometimes just a few words that managers could live by — or find an exit.

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He wanted GE to have “a big company body and a small company soul,” one that strove for “relentless consistency.”

“Control your destiny, or someone else will,” he instructed managers. And there was this: “If we wait for the perfect answer, the world will pass us by.”

Mr. Welch waited for no one.

His hard-charging style also earned him a nickname he intensely disliked.

Surveying GE’s divisions when he began leading the company, he took a direct approach: “fix, sell, or close” every business that wasn’t “No. 1 or No. 2” — either first or second in worldwide market share.

His directive had a human tally. GE laid off about 112,000 workers from 1980 to the end of 1985. That led a magazine to call him “Neutron Jack” — an allusion to the neutron bomb, which in wartime was supposed to kill people, but leave buildings standing.

By the accounting of naysayers, Mr. Welch did just that: He eliminated workers and left GE’s structures intact.

“I just don’t think it’s fair,” he said of the nickname in a 1993 interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Just as essential to the company’s success, he said, was his promotion of “boundaryless behavior,” in which collaboration is valued and input from all is encouraged.

“A boundaryless organization will ignore or erase group labels such as ‘management,’ ‘salaried’ or ‘hourly,’ which get in the way of people working together,” he wrote in an annual report to shareholders in 1989.

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At GE, he became the quintessential chief executive of the 1990s, a business leader who would go on to co-write best-selling books that sold hundreds of thousands of copies and became essential reading for executives.

“There was no corporate leader like ‘neutron’ Jack,” President Trump tweeted. “He was my friend and supporter. We made wonderful deals together. He will never be forgotten.”

John Francis Welch Jr. was born in Peabody on Nov. 19, 1935, and moved with his parents to Salem, where he graduated from Salem High School as class treasurer, a National Honor Society member, a hockey team cocaptain, and a baseball pitcher known for his curve ball.

Mr. Welch had grown up on Salem’s Lovett Street, the only child of John Welch Sr., a conductor for the Boston & Maine Railroad, and Grace Andrews, who used her sharp mind for numbers to help neighbors prepare tax forms.

Because work took John Sr. away from home, Grace became a significant influence over young Jack, talking with him for hours at the train station while awaiting his father’s return.

“We were very close,” Mr. Welch said in the 1991 Globe interview. “She was very powerful and strong.”

Mr. Welch graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and received a master’s and a doctorate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Kumble Subbaswamy, chancellor of UMass Amherst, recalled that Mr. Welch often said that “the social life as an 18-year old there was just as important to him — coming out of his shell and becoming who he became — as was the engineering education he got.”

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With a starting salary of $10,500, he joined GE as an engineer in the Pittsfield plastics plant and distinguished himself early on in management. At the age of 45, he became the youngest chief executive in company history.

Peter Cohan, a Babson College lecturer and a longtime GE shareholder, said Mr. Welch was emblematic of an era when larger-than-life CEOs doubled as management gurus.

Part of Mr. Welch’s success building the company into a powerhouse came through the expansion of GE Capital, which formerly was a side venture to help customers buy appliances.

GE Capital grew into one of the nation’s biggest financial services companies, helping Mr. Welch routinely meet or beat Wall Street earnings estimates.

“The foundation of his legend was the steady double-digit earnings growth of the company, which sent the stock way, way up,” Cohan said.

GE’s stock, which peaked at $60 a share in 2000 not long before Mr. Welch retired, never fully recovered and now trades in the $11 range.

While at the University of Illinois, Mr. Welch met Carolyn Osburn, a fellow student whom he married in 1959. They had four children and their marriage ended in divorce.

He later married Jane Beasley. Their 2003 divorce — and his marriage to Suzy Wetlaufer — became gossip column fodder.

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Beasley’s court filings included details about the retirement benefits GE had granted Mr. Welch, including use of a corporate aircraft and a Manhattan apartment — perks he gave up when that information became public.

“One thing I learned during my years as CEO is that perception matters,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece as the divorce unfolded. “And in these times when public confidence and trust have been shaken, I’ve learned the hard way that perception matters more than ever.”

Mr. Welch had met Suzy Wetlaufer in 2001, when she was editor of the Harvard Business Review and interviewed him.

“He was this larger-than-life character, and he had earned that reputation because he did larger-than-life things. His personality was extremely large, to put it mildly,” she recalled.

“I was scared before I met him. My heart was pounding super hard in my chest because his reputation preceded him,” she added. “And then he immediately did with me what he did with everyone else: He disarmed me with his humanity.”

They fell in love and married in 2004.

The couple cowrote books including “Winning” (2005), a bestseller, and “The Real Life MBA” (2015).

“I talk, and Suzy turns it into the CFD — the crummy first draft,” he said in a 2004 Globe interview of their writing process. “Then we talk some more and she restructures it. We go through some chapters 10 times. It is a terrific experience.”

Earlier, Mr. Welch earned a then-record $7.1 million advance for penning the best-selling 2001 memoir “Jack: Straight From the Gut,” written with John A. Byrne.

Along with writing, he filled his post-GE years by joining Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, a New York private equity firm, as a special partner, and opening the Jack Welch Management Institute, an MBA school based in Virginia.

Mr. Welch told the Globe he never missed running GE.

“I love what I did,” he told the Globe in 2005, “and now I love what I’m doing.”

In addition to his wife, Suzy, Mr. Welch leaves four children from his first marriage, Katherine of California, Anne of Boston, John III of Boston, and Mark of Montana; four stepchildren from his marriage to Suzy, Roscoe Wetlaufer of Seattle, Sophia of New York City, Marcus of New York City, and Eve Wetlaufer of New York City; and 10 grandchildren.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York will celebrate a funeral Mass at 9 a.m. Thursday in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

Moving to New York didn’t dim Mr. Welch’s affinity for Boston’s sports teams, including the New England Patriots, led by head coach Bill Belichick, his longtime friend.

In 2001, Mr. Welch was part of a group bidding to purchase the Red Sox, and in New York, he somewhat reluctantly agreed to attend Mets games, his wife said.

She often was asked what it was like to be married to someone as well-known as Mr. Welch.

“I literally struggled for 20 years with that question. My experience of him was as a husband, and my best friend, and an incredible stepfather. He was the greatest guy ever,” she said.

“He was both superhuman and completely human,” she added. “How he pulled that off I’ll never know, but he managed.”

Jon Chesto and Shirley Leung of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.