Summary:

  • Business leaders are honored for creating profitable growth
  • Those who create the greatest growth disrupt the status quo and change the way things are done – such as Zuckerberg and Jobs
  • Too many CEOs act as caretakers, overlooking growth
  • Caretakers watch value decline
  • Under Welch, GE dramatically grew and he was Time’s Person of the Year
  • Under Immelt, GE has contracted
  • Too many CEOs are like Immelt.  They need to either change, or be replaced

It’s that time of year when magazines like to honor folks for major accomplishments.  This year, Time’s Person of the Year is Mark Zuckerberg, honored for leading Facebook and its dramatic change in social behavior amongst so many people. Marketwatch.com selected Steve Jobs as its CEO of the Decade – an honor several journals gave him last year!

There is of course a bias in these selections.  Most journals highly favor CEOs that drive up their stock price!  For example, Ed Zander was CEO of the year in 2004 for his “turnaround” at Motorola – and within 2 years he was fired and Motorola was facing possible bankruptcy. Obviously his “quick fix” (getting the RAZR out the door with a big marketing push) didn’t pan out so well over time.  We’ll have to see if Alan Mulallly deserves to be CEO of the Year at Marketwatch, since it appears his selection has more to do with not letting Ford go bankrupt – like competitors GM and Chrysler – and thus reaping the benefits of customers who wanted to buy domestic but feared any other selection.  Whether Ford’s “turnaround” will be a winner, or another Zander/Motorola, we’ll know better in a couple of years.

One fellow who isn’t on anybody’s list is Jeff Immelt at General Electric.  His predecessor was.  Given that

  1. GE is the oldest company on the DJIA (Dow Jones Industrial Average)
  2. GE is one of the most widely held of all corporations
  3. GE is one of the largest American corporations in revenues and employees
  4. GE is in a plethora of businesses, globally
  5. Mr. Immelt is paid several million dollars per year to lead GE

It is worthwhile to think about why he’s not on this list – whether he should be – and if not, whether he should keep his job!

Since Immelt took the helm at GE, the value has actually declined.  He’s not likely to win any awards given that sort of performance.  Amidst the financial crisis, he had to make a very sweet deal with Berkshire Hathaway to invest cash (via preferred shares) in order to keep GE out of bankruptcy court – a deal that has enriched Mr. Buffett’s company at the expense of GE.  GE has exited several businesses, such as its current effort to unload NBC via a deal with Comcast, but it has not created (or bought) a single exciting, noteworthy growth business! GE has become a smaller, lower growth company that narrowly diverted bankruptcy.  That isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for honors!

Yes, GE has developed a nice positive cash flow, which will allow it to repurchase the preferred shares from Berkshire (MarketwatchGE to Buy Back Buffett’s Preferreds Next Year.”) But what is Mr. Immelt doing to create future shareholder value?  His plan to make a few acquisitions, pay some higher dividends (suspended when the company faltered) and repurchase equity offers shareholders very little as a way to generate high rates of return!  Why would anyone want to own GE?  Nobody expects the company to be a growth leader in 2012, or 2015.  With its current businesses, and strategy, there is no reason to expect GE to produce double digit earnings growth – or double its equity within any reasonable investing horizon.

There’s more to being a CEO than being a “caretaker.”  Mr. Immelt’s predecessor, Jack Welch, created enormous value for shareholders.  Mr. Welch was willing to disurpt the GE status quo.  In fact, he intentionally worked at it!  He made sure business leaders were constantly challenged to find new markets, create new products, expand into new businesses, leverage new  technologies and generate growth!  Mr. Welch was willing to take GE into growth markets, give leaders permission to create new Success Formulas, and invest in whatever it took to profitably grow revenues.  During the Welch era, competitors quaked at the thought of GE entering their markets because things were always shaken up – and GE changed the game in order to create higher rates of return.  During the Welch era investors received amongst the highest rate of return on any common stock!  GE value multiplied many-fold, making pensioners (invested in the stock) and employees quite wealthy – even as employment expanded dramatically.  That’s why Mr. Welch was Time’s Person of the Year in 2000 — and for many the CEO of the previous decade.

Mr. Immelt, on the other hand, has done nothing to benefit any of his constituencies.  Like far too many CEOs, he took a much less aggressive stance toward growth.  He has been unwilling to challenge and disrupt existing leaders, or promote aggressive market disruptions through the GE business units.  He has not invested in White Space projects that could continue the massive expansion started during the Welch era.  To the contrary, he has moved much more slowly, and focused more on selling businesses than growing them.  He has resorted to trying to protect GE – rather than keep it moving forward.  As a result, the company has retrenched and actually become less interesting, less valuable and less clearly able to produce returns or create new jobs!

Mr. Immelt certainly has his apologists, and seems to securely have the support of his Board of Directors.  But we should question this.  It actually has an impact on the American economy (and that of several other countries) when the CEO of a company as large as GE loses the ability to create growth.  The malaise of the American economy can be directly tied to CEOs who are operating just like Mr. Immelt: doing almost nothing to create new markets, new sources of revenue, new jobs.  Many business journalists like to say the government doesn’t create revenue, or jobs.  So who will create them when corporate leaders are as feckless as Mr. Immelt? Especially when they control such vast resources!

Congratulations to Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Jobs (and Mr. Hastings of Netflix who was named Fortune magazine’s CEO of the Year.)  They have created substantial new revenues, profits, cash flow and return for investors.  Their company’s employees, suppliers, customers and investors have all benefitted from their leadership.  By disrupting the way their company’s operated they pushed into new markets, and demonstrated how in any economy it is possible to create success.  Caretakers they are not, so like Mr. Welch each deserves its recent accolades.

And for all those CEOs out there who are behaving as caretakers – for all who are resting on past company laurels – for all who have watched their company value decline – for those who think it’s OK to not grow – for those who blame the economy, or government, or competitors, or customers or their industry for their inability to grow —- well, you either need to learn from these recently honored CEOs and dramatically change direction, or you should be fired.

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