Jeff Immelt says perception of his time as GE chief executive unfair and incomplete

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Jeff Immelt

Udit Kulshrestha | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Jeff Immelt told CNBC on Monday the perception of his time as CEO of General Electric has been unfair and incomplete.

“I’m wholly unhappy about the narrative that has been created,” Immelt said in an interview with CNBC’s David Faber.

“I don’t think it’s been complete. I don’t think it’s been fair. And I think it’s hurt a lot of people,” Immelt said, while explaining why he wrote a book about his tenure leading the industrial giant.

Immelt’s book, “Hot Seat,” is slated to be published Tuesday. The book’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, describes it as an “interrogation of himself and his tenure,” detailing “his proudest moments and his biggest mistakes.”

“All leadership is crisis leadership. And I think to a certain extent, this team, me, went through a lot together that others can learn from,” Immelt said. “I wanted to share that as well.”

When Immelt took over at GE in 2001 from then-CEO Jack Welch, the stock was already turning over, as the dot-com bubble of the 1990s burst and took the broader stock market lower as well. Immelt navigated GE through the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 2008 financial crisis. Immelt came under fire by critics for what they called poor leadership decisions as CEO that left GE cash-strapped.

Asked by Faber whether he felt unlucky, given the market conditions during his time as CEO, Immelt said, “I’m harder on myself than anyone else” in the book. But he added, “Do I think volatility and market risk things like that matter in terms of somebody’s tenure? Sure it does.”

On his way out the door in 2017 at GE, Immelt found himself defending the company’s practice of having an empty business jet follow his corporate plane on several trips around the world.

John Flannery, who look over for Immelt, was then ousted from the top job after just 14 months. Flannery was replaced on Oct. 1, 2018, with Larry Culp, who had been a GE board member since April. Culp previously was CEO of Danaher from 2000 to 2014.

Culp is in the midst of executing a turnaround at GE.

“As 2020 progressed, we significantly improved GE’s profitability and cash performance despite a still-difficult macro environment,” Culp said last month after posting better-than-expected industrial free cash flow for the fourth quarter and a rosy outlook for 2021.

JPMorgan analyst Steve Tusa, who called GE’s fall years ago, said in a note to clients Tuesday that the company’s fundamentals were largely in line with expectations for the quarter, though free cash flow was surprisingly high.

Back in December, the Securities and Exchange Commission fined GE $200 million to settle charges for misleading investors regarding its power and insurance businesses.

Addressing GE’s $10.6 billion acquisition of French multinational Alstom’s power assets in 2015, Immelt told Faber, “If I had to do it all over again, I won’t do the Alstom deal.”

Faber asked Immelt about what he wrote in the book about “‘maybe the worst mistake'” he ever made was “‘listening to the board and not firing'” Steve Bolze, who ran GE Power at the time.

“I’m harder on myself than anyone else,” Immelt said. “But it was a complicated deal, with difficult markets, where we didn’t have a team aligned with execution.” He added, “I, again, own that, as does the board in terms of where we positioned at that time.”

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