by Jeffery Immelt
When people ask me to describe GE, I say we are “an optimistic, confident, and tough-minded growth company; one that is dedicated to solving the world’s toughest problems.” In many ways we could have learned that from Ronald Reagan.
In the summer of 1954, Ronald Reagan—broadcasting and film star and renowned head of the Screen Actors Guild—started a new phase in his career: he started working at GE. From 1954 until 1962, Ronald Reagan served as the host of General Electric Theater, a drama series that aired Sunday nights on CBS. Back in 1954, GE was having a hard time deciding who would best serve as the “public face” of the company. Earl Dunckel, the GE communicator in charge of the search, said they weren’t looking for just someone people knew, who had the skills of a good salesman and showman. They were looking for someone who could not only entertain people, but also inspire them—someone who possessed that quality of character called “moral fiber.” They found that person in Ronald Reagan.
The GE slogan in the 1950s was “progress is our most important product”—and it was a time of great progress and possibilities for the country, which Mr. Reagan experienced in his second role with GE at the time: as an “employee ambassador.” He traveled the breadth of the country, riding trains to visit GE plants and speaking hundreds of times to tens of thousands of workers. He started at dawn and would get to his hotel after midnight. Then he would do it all over again the next day.
My father, Joe Immelt, worked for GE from 1948 to 1988, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Mr. Reagan visited this facility several times during his tours. This made a great impression on all of our workers, including my father. Mr. Reagan walked every assembly line at GE. Every single one. He had lunch with employees in the cafeteria. He listened. He wowed managers and impressed our customers. He hit the Rotary, the local chamber of commerce, the Kiwanis, and the Elks.
Our CEO at the time, Ralph Cordiner, told Mr. Reagan: “I am not ever going to censor anything you say. You are speaking for yourself. Say what you believe.”
And so Mr. Reagan did, writing and delivering the message that would become known as “The Speech,” his testament of faith in the virtues and abilities of free people and the great country they had built. In 1964, he gave a famous version of that speech before a national audience on behalf of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and began one of the most successful American political careers of the 20th century.
GE saw his roving ambassadorship as a way to engage with its workforce. Mr. Reagan saw it as an education. He said later that “the GE tours became almost a post-graduate course in political science.” “By 1960,” he added, “I had completed the process of self-conversion.”
It was a political conversion, of course. In the early 1950s, Ronald Reagan was still a registered Democrat. But it was also a conversion to a life of public service, the beginning of a journey that would culminate in his presidency, in a chapter of American history that will always be remembered as the Reagan era.
I joined GE in 1982, at the same time President Reagan was rejuvenating our economy. Over the last three decades, GE has followed the path of optimism and growth. We’ve earned $265 billion in profit and generated about $300 billion of cash. We became one of the world’s most competitive companies, and we have come through the recent crisis very confident in our future.
But the world has changed dramatically since the 1980s.
Again, we find ourselves at a turning point. There are new global economic forces in China and India. We are confronting new terrorist threats around the world. High and volatile energy prices threaten our national security. Our country is grappling with large social problems like affordable health care. Wall Street, long a global symbol of successful capitalism, has been blamed for the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression. And our future competitiveness is threatened by problems in our public education system and a rapidly growing national debt.
Our times demand of us in government and business that kind of leadership that takes inspiration from the values and achievements of Americans. We are forced to make some tough decisions, and we’d be wise to follow the example set by President Reagan.
First, optimism. Only optimists invest and create jobs. It is important that we make technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship the cornerstone of a 21st century America. Companies, big and small, need to invest more in research and development (R&D), and our leadership in the emerging sciences must be reestablished. To support this effort, we need a new generation of “American engineers.” The wealth of a country is dependent on science. To achieve this, education in this country must be strengthened to allow our children to compete.
President Reagan had a sense of confidence that American free enterprise can compete in every corner of the world. In the 1980s, America was the world’s largest exporter by far; now we are fourth. Within the next few years, China could pass us in total manufacturing output. We can reverse this trend only by investing in great products and selling them competitively in every corner of the world.
Customers and governments around the world like doing business with U.S. companies. They respect our innovation and our values. There will be one billion new middle-class consumers in the emerging markets over the next 10 years . . . one billion! An American renewal can be fueled by entrepreneurship that is growing around the world.
I grew up in Ohio and had never left the United States until I went to work at GE. Recently, I have spent a lot of time in Africa, where we will sell more than $5 billion in products this year. Global capitalism is a great way to spread prosperity. It is important that American companies are leading in places like Africa, developing countries that will grow and where people want to experience personal growth and freedom.
Second, President Reagan was determined. Today, we must be realistic about our problems and about finding and implementing their solutions. We must be the country the world looks to as the problem solvers, not the problem creators. It is time for our generation to accept the responsibility of every American generation: to create a more prosperous America than we inherited, by solving the problems that became acute on our watch: the deficit, affordable health care, and energy security.
President Reagan was a very popular figure on the GE factory floor. He listened to our workers, and he understood them. He understood their problems, and most of all, he believed in their dreams. All our workers should have an important stake as we grow our company around the world. Today, we are investing in our manufacturing capability to restore a more productive middle class inside GE. Our workers won’t settle for learning how to live with fear; they want to live their dreams. They don’t want to be consoled; they want to be encouraged.
Earlier this week, I visited our facility in Erie, one of Ronald Reagan’s most frequent stops. This is a 100-year-old factory where we make locomotives. This plant has been hard hit by the downturn. Yet we have increased our investment in technology.
We will exit the recession way ahead of our competition. And we are aggressively selling our products in every corner of the world . . . from Brazil to Kazakhstan to South Africa. Growth also requires hard work. Nothing will be given to us.
Last, Ronald Reagan was the manifestation of persistence, personal accountability, and leadership. In every initiative he undertook, every legislative debate, every negotiation, and every discussion, he remained a model of courtesy and civility as well as determination. His Democratic successors publicly acknowledged his welcome and tempering influence on political discourse, an influence we could surely benefit from today. He knew however deeply felt and strongly argued our differences were, we had something more important in common. We’re all Americans.
Today, those qualities of tough-minded optimism and confidence will help our country continue on its path of renewal. Like President Reagan, we must believe in ourselves, take courage from our ideals, and stand tall again.
To help achieve this promise, GE has invested $5 million to the GE/Reagan Scholarship Fund in
supportof high school seniors whose industry, initiative, and achievements recall the qualities of the self-made man who became the 40th President of the United States.
According to his memoirs, President Reagan considered his time at GE the second most-important, eight-year job he ever had. GE is honored by the association. But I suspect we learned from him more than he learned from us. And the most important thing President Reagan taught all Americans is that in this remarkable country, you can succeed as many times as you have the courage, initiative, and vision to try.