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    GE’s secret weapon is its training center on Hudson River

    Every year, as many as 12,000 employees trek to the Westchester County woods in New York to General Electric’s training center.
    Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe
    Every year, as many as 12,000 employees trek to the Westchester County woods in New York to General Electric’s training center.

    OSSINING, N.Y. — To fully understand General Electric’s corporate culture, drive past Westchester County’s deep-blue reservoirs and meandering stone walls, almost to the Hudson River.

    There, you’ll find a hilltop campus that’s one-half convention center, one-half mountain resort, and 100 percent GE.

    Staffed by professional educators, the center is a place where executives can escape for a week to one of the 248 guest rooms and hone their management skills in between guitar jam sessions and cocktail contests.

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    If GE’s new Boston headquarters is the brains of its 330,000-person global operation, then Crotonville is its heart.

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    GE spends more than $1 billion annually on employee development around the world, and this training center is the focal point. Every year, as many as 12,000 employees trek to the Westchester woods to visit.

    “We develop leaders [here],” said vice president of executive development Jack Ryan, who divides his time between Crotonville and Boston. “We help them discover their leadership style. We try to inspire them to go out and lead.”

    As a giant conglomerate, GE is not without its critics. But controversy doesn’t seem to touch Crotonville, an idyllic retreat with many of the corporate perks and little of the strife.

    Formally known as the John F. Welch Leadership Development Center, the campus is affectionately known as Crotonville, a reference to the section of Ossining where it’s located.

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    Yet there’s more to it than a generic training center. You see the difference in the ways the campus is designed for mingling: the dance floor on the upper level in a barn, the coffee shop with 20-foot-high ceilings in the old farmhouse, the cache of frozen grapes made for sharing.

    December 14, 2016 - GE Management Development Institute - Crotonville in Ossining, NY. At a workshop on campus Jason Pollack, GE Oil and Gas (C), Fabien Moelo GE Healthcare (R), Malik McCoy GE Power (center left) and Leabeth Peterson GE Energy Management (L) collaborate at a workshop on campus. General Electric says its success depends in part on the massive training center it operates in upstate New York referred to as The Crotonville Campus. The entire campus was "re-imagined" between 2009-2013. (Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe)
    Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe
    GE workers collaborated at a workshop at its Crotonville campus.

    And it’s visible in the areas geared more for solitude: the 3-kilometer jogging track through the trees, or the reflection spots scattered throughout the buildings, including one with thank-you notes devoted to “Gratitude.”

    Does all that attention to detail make the coaching that happens at Crotonville somehow more successful?

    Absent any empirical evidence, it’s hard to know. Academics point to the place as a standard-setter in the world of corporate training, though.

    And employees rave about the opportunities they get to network and to learn from the company’s top executives. But that affection may have as much to do with the chance to get away from the daily grind on the company’s dime.

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    What is clear is that GE’s ethos is easily disseminated here. This is a company that places a high value on learning, where employees fight to be chosen for leadership training tracks. And Crotonville is an essential rung on that ladder.

    Under former chief executive Jack Welch, that culture focused on the “Six Sigma” approach, the methodical pursuit of perfection. The emphasis has shifted under CEO Jeff Immelt, as he seeks to remake GE into a “digital industrial” giant. He’s more focused on inspiration through collaboration, emphasizing agility and what he calls a “startup-like mentality.”

    Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe
    The exterior of Cafe 56 with a fire pit in the foreground.

    Employees who visit Crotonville are encouraged to shut off their phones and focus on learning, not on their day jobs. This kind of immersion can make it ripe for satire. The NBC sitcom “30 Rock” devoted an episode, titled “Retreat to Move Forward,” to a fictionalized version of the place in which hijinks ensue after Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon character joins Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy for a sojourn to “Croton-on-Hudson.”

    For GE, moving forward meant relocating its corporate offices last year to Boston from Fairfield, Conn.

    With Crotonville, however, the company maintains an important point of continuity. As GE executives weighed headquarters options in 2015, one of Boston’s selling points was its proximity to the New York campus: It’s less than an hour’s flight away by helicopter.

    Ann Klee, the vice president who oversaw the headquarters search, said GE didn’t rule out locations in the West, Midwest, and South. But being far from Crotonville was a major strike against them.

    “When we started out with the search team, we drew circles on a map,” Klee said. “The two centers were Crotonville, and New York City [where board and investor meetings are held]. . . . Those were two immutable points.”

    Klee first came in 2008 to huddle with other GE up-and-comers to brainstorm ways to better partner with clients.

    After formulating a strategy, they fanned out over the globe to meet with customers. (Klee ended up in India.)

    She subsequently returned to brainstorm with executives about how to identify “black swans,” business-speak for potentially catastrophic risks.

    And she has participated in team-building exercises there.

    “You don’t just come here once,” said Klee, who has been to Crotonville more than 20 times. “You come here multiple points in your career. It’s that continuous learning.”

    The training center’s origins can be traced back to an island near the edge of Lake Ontario, a place called Association Island, because it was owned by the National Electric Lamp Association and used for management camps. GE acquired the business in 1911 and continued the camps.

    (The company and the island retreats served as inspiration for former GE publicist Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel.)

    The focus shifted down-state in the 1950s, when the Hopf Institute of Management became available in Ossining. GE bought the Hopf estate in 1954 and opened its Crotonville training center there roughly two years later. GE added land and buildings over time, bringing it to 59 acres.

    Kelvin Sunburn (right), a GE lawyer, and Bart Wilms, an employee from Dubai, worked in Cafe 56.
    Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe
    Kelvin Sunburn (right), a GE lawyer, and Bart Wilms, an employee from Dubai, worked in Cafe 56.

    The campus isn’t just for training. A year ago, managers went to Crotonville to brainstorm how to approach the move to Boston, huddling in a space called “the Living Room,” where “Scrabble” and “Risk” boards are tacked to the wall.

    A transition team handling the upcoming Baker Hughes merger, a deal that’s combining GE’s oil and gas business with the oil-industry giant, converged recently in Crotonville to sweat out the details.

    GE employees aren’t the only ones who make the trip; the campus has become the centerpiece for an increasing number of “leadership experiences” that the company offers to key customers.

    Richard Miller, chief executive of the Virtua hospital group in New Jersey and a GE client, said he has visited Crotonville at least seven times, usually for a leadership retreat or management training. He said he has been struck by the accessibility: GE makes its top health care executives available, and Immelt, the CEO, has occasionally visited Virtua’s sessions. (Immelt, who is typically in Crotonville several days every month, says he tries to devote a third of his time to leadership development.)

    “It wasn’t just: We went there, GE dropped us in there, and we left,” Miller said.

    Other big companies have their own training centers, although there are fewer now than in the 1980s, according to Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. Aulet said Crotonville has long been considered among the most effective.

    The educators develop their expertise through the volume of classes they teach, Aulet said. Plus, there’s the secluded nature of the campus.

    “People don’t learn as well when the class will be held down the hall from your office,” Aulet said. “When you went to Crotonville, you went into a different world.”

    The corporate headquarters is now much farther from the retreat center. On a good day, GE executives could make the drive from Fairfield in under an hour. Now, they need a helicopter to get there in the same time from Boston. Overnights are more likely to be the norm for many top executives, instead of day trips.

    But Boston employees won’t need to travel to get a taste of Crotonville. Executives say they want to replicate some of its elements as they build a new headquarters in Boston’s Fort Point section. Klee said the company is using the collaborative emphasis in Crotonville as a model, to design areas where employees can easily run into each other to exchange ideas or work together.

    “We want to create a variety of spaces that are comfortable and encourage innovative thinking,” Klee said. “Crotonville is a great model for that.”

    Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.