My Thousand Hours with Jack Welch

What it was like to collaborate on the GE chief's memoir

It was a late August night, and I had just walked through the door of Jack Welch's guest house in Nantucket after a long night at a charity dinner. The phone rang. It was Jack, insisting I take a look outside. The moment I stepped onto the deck, his raspy voice boomed through the darkness. "Look up!" he shouted from the balcony of his summer home. "Isn't it incredible?"

The starry sky was brilliant--but the greater impression was left by Jack himself. He seemed as genuinely thrilled as a kid with an unlimited allowance at FAO Schwarz. Over the next year, as Jack's collaborator on his memoir, I'd see up close his remarkable zest for life, his passion for living every moment to the fullest.

It was the most grueling and most exhilarating experience of my professional life. I'd eventually log in well over 1,000 hours with Jack, often sitting side by side, at all times of the day and night, over pizza and beer, bowls of microwave popcorn, frozen yogurt, and enough Bordeaux to stock a modest wine cellar. Our sessions together were thoughtful, fun, engaging, and intense. The final five months we worked seven days a week, through every weekend. Jack conceded that he had never worked so hard in his life. I think he even forgot how to play golf.

OPEN DOOR. Jack asked me to be his collaborator during the summer of 2000. I jumped at the invite. A few years earlier I had spent four months reporting and writing a cover story on him for BusinessWeek. Jack was remarkably generous. He didn't open the door. He took the door off its hinges. He shared private letters, conversations, and confidences. I was at work on the book for only a couple of months when I received an unexpected phone call from Jack on a Saturday morning. "You've got to come down here to New York right now. We're trying to buy Honeywell (HON ), and it's crazy. It's so much fun. Hurry up."

A few months later I was on a General Electric Co. (GE ) corporate jet heading home from Brussels after a disappointing meeting between Jack and the European Competition Commissioner Mario Monti. Other leaders might have been crushed. Not Jack. He was already 10 steps ahead, putting together a new strategy.

Over the course of the project, I ventured to his hometown of Salem, Mass., prayed in the same pew at the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle as his mother when he served as an altar boy. I visited his childhood home on 15 Lovett St. and walked the golf course where he fell in love with the game as a 12-year-old caddy. I interviewed friends and relatives, mentors, colleagues--even his first wife.

What struck me most about Jack was his extraordinary ability to show both unrelenting toughness and sincere affection for the people in his orbit--often at the same moment. No one who has worked closely with Jack has been spared either a swift kick or an enveloping hug. Jack is simply more impatient and more demanding than anyone could possibly imagine. He is also smarter and more endearing.

Early on, I sat down with Bill Lane, who has helped Jack put together his annual report letters. Lane asked me if I knew what I had gotten myself into. He told me that one of Jack's letters had gone through 100 drafts when it was pulled off the press for still more alterations because Jack didn't like the "flow" of the words.

I was forewarned, but nothing could prepare me for what was to come. I struggled to get Jack to dig deeply into his past, but he's a guy who lives for the moment. There were also times when we fought over what to cut and what to leave in. In general, he was tough on himself--but drew a line when it came to hurting someone else's feelings or reputation. With one or two exceptions, this is not a book about settling scores or dishing dirt.

It's an understatement to say that Jack sweats the details. He lives them over and over again, and he makes you think two, three, four times and more about them. We went over every draft, word for word, comma for comma. We argued over the use of a dash in a sentence. Once, Jack grabbed my arm, looked me in the eye and said: "You're going to mess this up, aren't you?"

LONG REACH. I laughed. What else could I do? It was Jack being Jack. Only months before his retirement, he was still suggesting changes to NBC's prime-time schedule and "approving" storyboards for a TV commercial for a new GE refrigerator. "Approving," by the way, doesn't quite capture the mood of those meetings. He was as actively and passionately involved as anyone else in the room. His reach was extraordinary. One afternoon, he scurried over to CNBC's studios in New Jersey to rally the staff of Business Center for the return of Lou Dobbs on rival CNN. When Jack came back, he was electric with excitement, pulling all kinds of levers to make sure CNBC would hold its own.

Over-the-top meddling? Not the way I saw it. His focus and obsessions make it clear that he cares. You know that what you're doing is important work. You understand it commands his complete attention. Something else happens during these moments: You don't want to disappoint him. It's the most potent form of motivation on the planet.

Besides, as GE employees well know, there's just no escaping Jack Welch. At one point, I had locked myself up in near total seclusion to churn out some early drafts. I hadn't been in touch with Jack for nearly two weeks. Suddenly, up pops an e-mail on my computer. The message: "Have you disappeared? Jack." I gulped and quickly dashed off a response, letting him know how hard I was working on the manuscript. His reply came back within minutes: "I love you.... I just thought you passed away."

From the start, the goal was to create an intimate conversation between Jack and the reader, a dialogue that could easily occur at a bar over a drink. Jack insisted that there could be nothing that might be considered "pompous" or "preachy" in the book. He wanted to address the small and big mistakes of his career, from his acquisition of Kidder Peabody to hiring Japanese employees on their ability to speak English.

There were tender moments. Jack grew misty-eyed recalling the night he washed his mother's back in a hospital room, hours before her death in 1965. He was hilarious in recounting the details of his heart attack in 1995 that led to bypass surgery (He dashed through a crowded hospital emergency room at 1 a.m., jumped on an empty gurney, and began shouting: "I'm dying! I'm dying!")

But Jack became the most animated when reflecting on the ideas that have formed the core of his management philosophy. We explored the origins of many of them, from the dictum to be No. 1 or No. 2 in every business to the concept of a "boundaryless" organization. (The word popped into his head on a beach in Barbados when a guy dressed up as Santa Claus popped out of a submarine).

One day Jack arrived for our interview session and said plainly: "If we can't get through the first 10 years of the job next week, we stink!" We didn't make it. There were far too many revisions. Toward the end of the project, with editors breathing down our necks, we holed up every weekend in a room that looked and smelled like a college dorm to grind out the final chapters.

As Jack leaves GE in an orgy of media attention, most observers are commenting on how he made GE the most valuable corporation in the world or what his legacy will eventually be. I remember and admire most not the results but the extraordinary human being behind them.

By John A. Byrne

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