Nobody quite knew what to expect of Jeffrey R. Immelt when he took over the top job at General Electric Co. (GE) in September, 2001. GE had long thrived under the legendary Jack Welch, making it tempting to expect more of the same from his young successor. But Immelt, 48, has put his distinct imprint on GE's culture and strategy. Moreover, he has done it through a period of intense uncertainty -- from the September 11 attacks through new regulations and a shaky economy.
Through it all, Immelt has stuck to his agenda for transforming GE in the 21st century. That has meant creating a much more customer-driven, global, and diverse culture -- one that spawns innovation, embraces technology, and has the goods to grow internally in a slow-growth world. He has shaken up the portfolio, too, by edging out of lower-return businesses like insurance with the spin-off of Genworth Financial (GNW) in 2004, while buying stronger plays such as Vivendi Universal's (V) entertainment assets and Amersham PLC, a British diagnostics and biotech giant. He even broke up the massive and often opaque GE Capital (GE) into four transparent businesses. "The biggest challenge is continuing to drive consistent growth in a world that is more volatile and has less economic growth," says Immelt.
It won't be easy. While the company forecasts 2005 earnings growth of up to 17%, 2004's growth is expected to be only 5% to 7%. Still, strong cash flow has Wall Street believing that Immelt can bring back the good times. The stock price was up more than 19% through late December. As Immelt proceeds with his vision of where to take GE, a growing number of investors are coming along for the ride.