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With Jack Welch set to retire in four years, there are few more tantalizing questions in Corporate America than who will replace the legendary CEO. Neither Welch nor the company will discuss succession, and no obvious heir-apparent has surfaced. Even as the clock ticks toward the end of Welch's tenure, sources close to the board say there's little pressure to speed the naming of a successor. ''GE has had a unique ability to match a man with his times, and I expect they'll do it again,'' says Walter Wriston, who retired from GE's board in 1993.

That doesn't mean the race to succeed Welch is not well under way. He has a stable of seasoned execs vying for the job. And over the past year, Welch has given new tasks to a younger crop of possible heirs and fortysomething fast-trackers. His two-pronged strategy: test the front-runners while also developing GE's farm team.

OPEN RACE. It's a delicate balancing act. If Welch anoints an heir, he could face a brain drain of GE's most seasoned players. With the race still open, however, headhunters say it has been remarkably difficult to lure would-be CEOs away. ''Jack is a master choreographer, keeping these people challenged and motivated,'' says Gerard R. Roche, chairman of executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles Inc.

Insiders and GE watchers say the shortlist of home-grown contenders includes W. James McNerney Jr., 47. The ex-McKinsey & Co. consultant came up through GE Capital, did a stint in Asia, and was put in charge of GE Lighting last year. Another rising star is Gary L. Rogers, 51, head of GE Plastics. Before that, Rogers turned around GE's appliances unit. And in 1995, Welch tapped Robert L. Nardelli, 48, to fix the troubled power-generation unit. Dennis D. Dammerman, 50, CFO and a Welch troubleshooter, is also in the running.

Close behind these four are slightly older men with impressive track records. GE Capital Services' Gary C. Wendt, 54, who has built Capital up to about one-third of GE's overall operating profits, is a strong contender. A close rival is ex-Capital exec and NBC chief Robert C. Wright, 53. A close friend of Welch's, he has transformed the TV network in the past few years. Were Welch, who had surgery last year, to leave early, Wendt's and Wright's chances could grow.

But Welch is also grooming the new generation--and some suspect GE's board may leapfrog its older executives by naming a younger man. After heading several drives to boost manufacturing productivity, Gary M. Reiner, 42, is overseeing Welch's quality push. Another up-and-comer is David L. Calhoun, 39, who ran the key corporate audit group at GE headquarters. In May, 1995, Welch named him to run Transportation. And after an impressive two years at GE's silicones business, David M. Cote, 44, is heading up Appliances.

Others who bear watching include Michael A. Neal, 43, a former marketer at GE's electrical distribution unit now rising up through the ranks at GE Capital, Jeffrey R. Immelt, 40, who has held increasingly important sales and marketing posts at Plastics and Appliances, and Michael D. Frazier, 38, a rising star within GE Capital who ran GE's Japanese unit in the early '90s. Headhunters think McNerney and Rogers have a slight edge. But the list of possible heirs runs long and deep. And it's likely to stay that way until the tight-lipped Welch decides otherwise.

By Tim Smart in Fairfield

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Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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