December 14, 2004

News & Opinion: GE and corporate citizenship

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 2:56 AM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

I'm going to follow up my earlier post on business, values and corporate responsibility with a few words about GE.
This company is changing. Maybe dramatically. Jeff Immelt, the CEO, is remaking the portfolio. GE recently bought a water purification business called Ionics, a solar energy business and a wind power business. I heard Steve Zwolinski, the president of GE Wind Energy,, speak at a conference in Washington last week, and he sees robust growth ahead for the wind business. (Germany already has 45,000 people employed in the wind business, compared to 3,000 in the U.S., he said.) GE is not often associated with being "green" but you'll be hearing more about that in the year ahead.
Immelt is comfortable talking about values and even virtue. I interviewed him a couple of months ago, and he told me that "to be a great company, GE also has to be a good company." GE appointed its first V.P. for corporate citizenship a couple of years ago. It will publish its first corporate citizenship report next year. These were not issues that engaged the former CEO, Jack Welch.
GE's still got lots of work to do on CSR. It has a subsidiary doing business in Iran, which is legal, but morally questionably, to say the least. Environmentalists complain that it has refused to clean up PCBs in the Hudson River, although that issue is a lot more complicated than most of the reporting on it would indicate. But there's no doubt in my mind that Immelt wants to improve GE's practices, as well as its reputation.
Why does this matter? Because GE is the most influential company in American business.