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But underneath, friends and colleagues say, Immelt is no less intense or competitive than Welch, possessed of the same abiding passion for new ideas and perfectly willing to wield the ax, as he recently did with the company's flagging no-load mutual-fund business. "He is startlingly open-minded," says Shelly Lazarus, CEO of advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather, who joined the GE board in January.
Immelt has GE in his blood. Not only did his father work nearly 40 years as a middle manager at the company's aircraft business, but Immelt also met his wife Andrea on the job, when both were sales reps in the plastics division in the early '80s. As an undergrad at Dartmouth, it should come as no surprise, he was a classic overachiever--double major in applied math and economics, president of his fraternity and offensive tackle for the football team.
To start his foray into business, Immelt returned to his hometown, Cincinnati, Ohio, and went to work for Procter & Gamble, the cradle of brand management. There he shared an office and a mischievous streak with Microsoft's perpetually overstimulated CEO Steve Ballmer. "We were incorrigible," Immelt recalls with a laugh. After getting his M.B.A. at Harvard, he started his ascent at GE in 1982, spending a year in corporate marketing at its Fairfield, Conn., headquarters, where for six months he lived practically rent free in the pool house of a suburban estate. Immelt spent most of the next 15 years in various sales and marketing positions at the company's plastics group--the same place, incidentally, where Welch got his start.
But it was during a brief stint at GE Appliances, a low-margin business that can test the mettle of any executive, that Immelt, in his own words, "went from being a boy to a man." In the late 1980s, as head of service, he had to handle a massive, messy recall of more than a million faulty refrigerator compressors, and in the process he evolved from a quiet to a vocal leader. To help boost morale, Immelt would occasionally climb up on a forklift on the shop floor and give a rousing speech. More than a few times, he donned a uniform, got in a truck and went house to house with the techies to fix the problem. The stress took its toll. Immelt, a nervous eater, ballooned to 280 lbs., but has since dropped 60 lbs. and kept it off. When he left Appliances, his colleagues gave him a cartoon depicting him at his desk, harried and surrounded by junk food.
At GE Medical, possibly the company's most high-tech, global business, Immelt became a star--persuading a growing number of cash-strapped hospitals to trade in their old-fashioned equipment for digital machines that were capable of generating more dynamic images much faster. He inked lucrative, long-term deals with such hospital giants as HCA and Premier, and bought a number of smaller companies to round out his product line, all the while growing GE's market share from 25% to 34% and moving the company into services such as data mining.
Welch was particularly impressed by Immelt's ability to design products with the active input of customers, in one case producing an ultrafast CT scanner. As if that weren't enough, Immelt raised GE Medical's local community profile, leading a company-wide effort to help clean up and repair local public schools.