At Any Cost: Jack Welch, General Electric, and the Pursuit of Profit

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9780679421320: At Any Cost: Jack Welch, General Electric, and the Pursuit of Profit
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Jack Welch, the CEO of General Electric and one of the most renowned figures in today's business world, has been seen by some as the model corporate leader and by others as the quintessential unmitigated pursuer of profit. In this searching, revealing, and riveting book, the man and his methods, and the legendary company he runs, are brilliantly examined.

In the 1980s Welch built GE into the prototypical global company. In the process, he created immeasurable wealth. GE under Welch is the world's most profitable and most valuable company--twenty-two consecutive years of dividend increases; a near-perfect progression of ever-higher profits; and a 1,155 percent increase in the value of its shares between 1982 and 1997, the year GE became the first corporation to be valued at more than $200 billion. By July 1998 its shares had risen in value another $100 billion.

As we watch Welch's spectacular rise through the ranks at GE, we see his impetuousness, his aggressiveness, his lightning strikes. We see the making of an extraordinary leader who is a catalyst for change, who anticipates events rather than merely reacting to them, and who confronts complacency with blitzkrieg action.

But success for a company can come at a price for the community. As Thomas F. O'Boyle shows, long before most chief executives had heard of corporate restructuring--and long before "downsizing" became a word heard daily in American life--Welch was practicing both. As the story of his seventeen-year tenure unfolds, we see him eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs, send other jobs abroad, buy and sell hundreds of businesses, remove entire echelons from the corporate hierarchy, and shift the company's focus from long-established manufacturing  businesses to entertainment and finance. His approach to personnel cuts earned him the
nickname "Neutron Jack."

In its latest incarnation, the vast manufacturing company that Thomas Edison began in 1878 has also been caught up in miscues and legal difficulties: defective refrigerators brought to market; industrial wastes improperly buried; excessive radiation in the workplace; fraud in military contract procurement; a financial service division's improprieties that landed on the front page. All the while, shareholders have reaped enormous gains--but, the author asks, at what cost?

Thomas F. O'Boyle has given us an unprecedented look at GE, at the Welch revolution--at the American way of big business at the end of the twentieth century.

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Review:

No contemporary business leader has been so widely acclaimed as Jack Welch of General Electric. Welch's transformation of GE into one of America's most profitable and valuable companies has been chronicled already in several other books, most recently Jack Welch and the GE Way by Robert Slater. Now comes journalist Thomas F. O'Boyle to take Welch down a notch--or two or three. Where other books wholeheartedly endorse Welch's gung-ho style of leadership, At Any Cost finds much to abhor.

O'Boyle, an editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, holds Welch personally responsible for various scandals over the years at some of GE's multifarious appendages, from contract fraud in its defense business (later sold) to faked crash tests of GM trucks on Dateline NBC. Welch's single-minded devotion to winning drives his subordinates to cut corners, O'Boyle suggests, though the author offers little evidence to implicate Welch in these or other lapses by a few of GE's 276,000 employees.

O'Boyle is actually more interested in nailing Welch for many of America's social problems. He believes that mass layoffs at GE in the 1980s made downsizing fashionable. GE's success in enriching shareholders encouraged other corporations to curry favor with Wall Street while ignoring their impact on the rest of society. The results have been catastrophic for many families and communities. So even in good times, American workers are plagued by a sense of insecurity. O'Boyle implies that Welch's pernicious influence can be seen in the divorce rate and even in the paranoia that produced the bombing of the Tulsa federal building.

Yet O'Boyle is not a class warrior or know-nothing populist. He recognizes that the drive and ruthlessness of people like Jack Welch have saved America from the economic stagnation of a Germany or Japan. Thorough in its reporting and finely written, At Any Cost is a plea for a kinder and gentler corporate capitalism, one mindful of its social consequences. O'Boyle does not have all the answers, but he raises important questions. --Barry Mitzman

About the Author:

Thomas F. O'Boyle has been writing about business and management issues since 1979. He covered U.S., European, and Asian industrial corporations for eleven years at the Wall Street Journal. He was named business editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1994, where he is currently an assistant managing editor. He lives with his wife and three children near Pittsburgh.

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