Gary C. Wendt is perhaps as close to the embodiment of the General Electric Co. ethic as one can get. A tightly wound man who keeps his impatience just below the surface, he is extremely demanding. Wendt, a University of Wisconsin engineering graduate, closely monitors operations and is forever quizzing subordinates about their progress--with the assurance of one who already knows a lot of the answers. Says Edward D. Stewart, one of three executive vice-presidents who report to Wendt: "He's obviously a constant pusher."
That's not to say that the head of GE Capital is a table-pounding autocrat. He is an adherent of another aspect of the GE culture: teamwork. He spends a lot of time listening to staffers at GE Capital's 22 business units. Wendt is constantly prodding his people to come up with new ideas and better ways of implementing the old ones. "We talk about growth a lot, we stress it, and we expect it," says the 50-year-old Wendt, whose soft, round face belies his tough manner.
CORPORATE CONSCIENCE. Wendt demands that his executives back up their notions with solid numbers. This approach was key to GE Capital's staying clear of a lot of the more speculative 1980s deals that brought rivals low. As adviser to a Florida-based real estate investment trust in the 1970s, Wendt weathered a sharp collapse in that state's real estate market. Joining GE Capital's real estate operation in 1975, he insisted on lending only to builders with established cash-flow track records, not construction projects grounded on hope. Wendt, who also oversaw GE Capital's commercial finance dealings, became its No. 2 executive in 1984, and then its CEO in 1986.
Friends and colleagues say Wendt has a sharp sense of humor that he uses to show he's on top of the situation. Stamford (Conn.) Advocate publisher William Rowe recalls a time when the two were driving back in a GE limo from a trip to Hartford. Wendt was on the phone, discussing the details of a major deal involving hundreds of millions of dollars, and a fascinated Rowe was doing his best not to appear too interested. When the call was over, Wendt turned to Rowe and asked: "Do you want a piece of it?"
Although hardly one to spout idealistic rhetoric, Wendt has an active pro bono life. The father of two grown daughters, he puts a heavy premium on helping needy children, particularly through education. As a trustee of the Stamford Boys & Girls Club, which caters to low-income kids, he is involved in the usual big-time executive's chore of raising funds for bricks and mortar. But it's the children's mental development that clearly engages Wendt the most. "He's forever sending us books for the kids," says Executive Director Abraham Reyes. "He even donated a magnetic globe." Wendt also often stops by the club's computer lab, where children learn basic computing skills. Much of the teaching there is done by GE Capital's volunteers.
Although a golfer like many Connecticut executives, Wendt favors outdoor activities that are new, challenging, and require heaps of teamwork--sort of like life at GE Capital. That's one reason he's a trustee of Outward Bound USA. Two years ago, he went on an arduous white-water rafting trip down Colorado's Green River, where he also climbed up and rappelled down cliff faces. Last year, Wendt and his wife went on an Outward Bound trek to Nepal, where they rode elephants and slept in jungle camps.
Wendt's globe-trotting suggests a certain restlessness. Whether he's checking up on GE Capital's far-flung operations, scouting business opportunities, or hobnobbing with foreign financial leaders, the man is always on the go. When he's abroad and weather permits, he makes sure to head for the links, which he says allows him to sample the local business mindset. And even when he's home relaxing, there's little peace and quiet. Radios and TVs are often tuned to sports. Wendt is an avid fan of the Chicago Cubs--which is about the only subpar performer the taskmaster of GE Capital will tolerate.