'I HAD A PAL IN MY MOM'
It had taken him 21 hard years and a bruising succession battle to make it to the top. But finally, in 1981, Jack Welch achieved his greatest ambition. At 45, the long-shot candidate became the youngest chief executive in General Electric Co.'s (GE) history. The climax to his ascension was his first shareholders' meeting in Phoenix. After holding forth for two hours, the triumphant Welch walked offstage, his blue eyes moist with tears. ''I wish my mother had been here,'' he whispered to GE director and friend Silas S. Cathcart.
Jack Welch, sentimental? In time, he become known as Neutron Jack, the man who cut GE's workforce by more than 100,000 employees in his first five years as CEO. But that moniker suggested a one-dimensional character, failing to shed light on a far more complex and private individual. Welch has always been more: a dutiful son who worshiped an adoring Irish mother, a loyal friend who still returns to Salem, Mass., for high school reunions, and a witty, self-deprecating husband and father of four.
A typical remark from those who know Welch well is how little he has changed since boyhood, when pals called him Jackie. GE-watchers often applaud Welch by saying he is one of the few corporate leaders to reinvent himself through his 17-year reign at the top. They point to the metamorphosis of his public image from remorseless cost-cutter to a business icon and champion of ''soft'' people values. Truth is, Welch hasn't changed at all.
Growing up in Salem, Welch was as he is today: unpretentious, demanding, and feisty, quick to use obscene language when his temper flares, but also remarkably compassionate and caring. His decisions to lay off employees to sharpen GE's competitiveness, say insiders, were painful and anguished.
His force of will in the game of business was just as strong in the scrappy games of hockey and baseball he played as a teenager. ''Most people change when they go to work for a big company,'' says George W. Ryan, a longtime friend and high-school buddy. ''They are forced to conform to survive. Not Jack. He forced the company to change.''
His mother, Grace, whom he strongly resembles, gave him the confidence to refuse to conform. Welch learned much from her--including pure persistence. It took 16 years before she and husband John Sr. saw the birth of their only child on Nov. 19, 1935, in Peabody, Mass. John Sr., a Boston & Maine train conductor and union leader, worked long hours, often leaving for work at 5:30 a.m. and not returning until 7:30 at night.
Welch and his mother would drive to the train station together, sit in the car in the dark, and talk while waiting for his dad to arrive. She convinced him that he didn't speak with a stutter, even though he did. She told him to aim for the sky. She took him to Fenway Park and helped cultivate his near lifelong passion for the Boston Red Sox. She nurtured his competitive instincts in games of blackjack and gin rummy around the kitchen table. And when she beat him, Welch recalls, she'd slam the cards on the table and shout ''Gin!'' in the loudest voice possible. ''I had a pal in my mom, you know,'' he says. ''We had a great relationship. It was a powerful, unique, wonderful, reinforcing experience.''
Young Jack, described in his high- school yearbook as a boy with ''a keen wit, a wise look, and an answer always ready,'' won a reputation as a bright and popular student but also as a jokester eager to pull off one caper or another. For the Senior Revue at Salem High School, Welch and his friends were wheeled onstage in baby carriages dressed in diapers and combat boots to sing Baby Face.
Grace shared his achievements in high school, where Jack was co-captain of the golf team and treasurer of the senior class. She encouraged him through the University of Massachusetts and the University of Illinois. And when he earned his PhD in chemical engineering from Illinois, she called the newspaper in Salem to report on the event. ''She was putting stuff in the local paper like: 'Dr. Welch Receives His PhD,''' Welch remembers with a laugh. ''She was impossible.''
Grace died in 1966, shortly after Welch gave her $1,000 from the bonus he got at a time when he was making not much more than $20,000 a year. She used the money to go to Florida for the winter, and that was where she passed away. ''She was so excited to get something from me, so excited that I did that,'' remembers Welch. ''The only tragedy is...all the things I could do now for her. That's the tragic thing.''
To this day, Welch considers his mother's passing long before he gained much acclaim or financial success to be the single greatest disappointment of his life. The second might be the end of his first marriage, to Carolyn B. Osborn, whom he had met at a Lenten Mass at the University of Illinois. They divorced amicably after 28 years, in 1987. Friends say the Welches simply found themselves on different paths. After raising four children--Katherine, John, Anne, and Mark--Carolyn returned to school for a law degree.
BLIND DATE. Welch met second wife Jane Beasley, a mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer at Shearman & Sterling, on a blind date arranged by Walter B. Wriston, longtime head of Citicorp who was then a GE director, and wife Kathy. The four met for dinner at Tino's, an Italian restaurant in New York, with Jack and Jane leaving the Wristons at 10 p.m. and going on to close the bar at Cafe Luxembourg at 4 a.m.
It took a second date over burgers at Smith & Wollensky's in New York--both arrived wearing leather jackets and blue jeans--to make it stick. Some 18 months later, in April, 1989, they married. Jane quit her position as an associate to make Welch her full-time occupation and frequently travels with him. Like Welch, Alabama-born Beasley, 45, is bright, tough, witty, and unpretentious. The only daughter of a farmer and a schoolteacher, she grew up a tomboy in a family with three brothers. So she's a great sparring partner for Jack. She also has adapted to his passions, skiing and golf, while encouraging him to learn about hers. ''His wife promised to learn to ski if he would go to the opera,'' says Gertrude G. Michelson, a GE director and friend. ''I can tell you she has skied more than he has gone to the opera.''
The private Welch is a sports fanatic, a movie buff, and a media junkie engaged equally by scuttlebutt and facts. After a vigorous 45-minute workout in his home at 5:30 a.m., he begins every weekday by scanning the ''What's News'' column of The Wall Street Journal, then glancing at the index in the B section for GE stories. Immediately afterward, he goes to his favorite newspaper, the New York Post. An incorrigible gossip himself, Welch says he typically finds ''at least five good stories there,'' especially on media and entertainment.
But there's no escaping GE business, even on vacations and weekends, when there are almost always faxes, telephone calls, and a stack of paperwork to mull over. In the evenings, he usually sits in front of the TV, watching MSNBC or CNBC while going through a foot-high pile of memos and reports. His favorite shows are NBC's Frasier and now off-the-air Seinfeld, though he has a formidable appetite for watching sports on TV, even--to the amazement of his wife--bowling.
Above all, though, Welch is a golf nut. He learned the game as a 12-year-old caddy who studied the swing and stance of the best golfers. Welch also helped teach Jane, who had never played golf before meeting him. She has now won two club championships in a row on Nantucket, where the Welches maintain a summer home.
The pair also purchased a house across the street from the Country Club of Fairfield. Meanwhile, Welch has lowered his handicap to five, though some partners say it's more like three.
He attacks golf as he does everything: with vigor and abandon. On a recent three-day weekend, Welch and his wife squeezed in 90 holes of golf at Augusta, where he is a member. And on a golf trip to Ireland with three other couples the summer after his open-heart surgery in 1995, he played six courses in six days. That's Welch to a tee--always seeking a game, eager to best the competition. Just the can-do attitude to make a mother proud.
By John A. Byrne in New York
Updated May 28, 1998 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1998, Bloomberg L.P.