Jeff Immelt on His First Days Running General Electric
It was my second day on the job, and I was in Seattle to speak at a Boeing conference. I was working out on the stair stepper, watching live on TV when the second plane hit. It wasn’t the classic worry you have in an airplane crash—whose engine it was and such. This was different. We had a bit of a contingency plan in place, but we had to do most of it in real time. I resolved pretty quickly that I would go home only after everybody else could fly. Everybody was on the road: [GE Chief Financial Officer] Keith Sherin was in California. [NBC Chief] Bob Wright was in California. Dennis Dammerman [of GE Capital] was away from the office. We were all trying to get back, but nobody wanted to use any special privileges. I didn’t want to make the panic worse, so I gave employees the choice of whether to go home. We didn’t close any offices. I was on the phone with our health-care folks, who were getting mobile units into the triage hospitals. I remember calling the CEO of Consolidated Edison. He lost a transformer. We gave him one. I reached out to Mayor Giuliani, and we contributed $10 million to the disaster effort. I had a board call, and I talked to Jack [Welch] once or twice. It was super intense. I was not cool at all.
Once we got our bearings, we started thinking through the potential impacts on the company. Two of our employees died in the attacks. We had coverage on some of the World Trade Center buildings. As we were going through the insurance business, I remember making a note to myself saying, “This really is not a GE business.”
The most critical decisions were around the aviation business, especially on the leasing side. The industry was in a downward spiral. People forget that the commercial aviation industry was in real jeopardy. We owned 1,200 aircraft, and we made engines. We were up to our eyeballs in planes. Our customers were hurting, so we had to find ways to help them see this through. In that September-to-December time period, you had the 9/11 tragedy, Enron unraveling, and the economy weakening. Those things signaled a kind of an end of the 1990s. We all woke up to a different time. But I never really thought about it as having much to do with me, or even GE. This was about the country. It could have been my 10th year on the job, and I still would have felt as anxiety-ridden. — As told to Diane Brady