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Jack Welch was born in Peabody, Massachusetts to John, a Boston & Maine Railroad conductor, and Grace, a housewife.
Welch attended Salem High School and later the University of Massachusetts Amherst, graduating in 1957 with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering. While at UMass he was a member of the Alpha chapter of the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity.
Welch went on to receive his M.S. and Ph.D at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1960.
Welch joined General Electric in 1960. He worked as a junior engineer in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, at a salary of $10,500 annually. Welch was displeased with the $1,000 raise he was offered after his first year, as well as the strict bureaucracy within GE. He planned to leave the company to work with International Minerals & Chemicals in Skokie, Illinois.
However, Reuben Gutoff, a young executive two levels higher than Welch, decided that the man was too valuable a resource for the company to lose. He took Welch and his first wife Carolyn out to dinner at the Yellow Aster in Pittsfield, and spent eight hours trying to convince Welch to stay. Gutoff vowed to work to change the bureaucracy to create a small-company environment.
"Trust me," Gutoff remembers pleading. "As long as I am here, you are going to get a shot to operate with the best of the big company and the worst part of it pushed aside." "Well, you are on trial," retorted Welch. "I'm glad to be on trial," Gutoff said. "To try to keep you here is important." At daybreak, Welch gave him his answer. "It was one of my better marketing jobs in life," recalls Gutoff. "But then he said to me--and this is vintage Jack--'I'm still going to have the party because I like parties, and besides, I think they have some little presents for me.'" Some 12 years later, Welch would audaciously write in his annual performance review that his long-term goal was to become CEO.
Welch was named a vice president of GE in 1972. He moved up the ranks to become senior vice president in 1977 and vice chairman in 1979. Welch became GE's youngest chairman and CEO in 1981, succeeding Reginald H. Jones. By 1982, Welch had disassembled much of the earlier management put together by Jones.
 Tenure as CEO of GE
Through the 1980s, Welch worked to streamline GE and make it a more competitive company.
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He also pushed the managers of the businesses he kept to become more productive. Welch worked to eradicate inefficiency by trimming inventories and dismantling the bureaucracy that had almost led him to leave GE in the past. He shut down factories, reduced payrolls and cut lackluster old-line units. Welch's philosophy was that a company should be either #1 or #2 in a particular industry, or else leave it completely. Although he was initially treated with contempt by those under him for his policies, they eventually grew to respect him. Welch's strategy was later adopted by other CEOs across corporate America.
Each year, Welch would fire the bottom 10% of his managers. He earned a reputation for brutal candor in his meetings with executives. He would push his managers to perform, but he would reward those in the top 20% with bonuses and stock options. He also expanded the broadness of the stock options program at GE from just top executives to nearly one third of all employees. Welch is also known for destroying the nine-layer management hierarchy and bringing a sense of informality to the company.
During the early 1980s he was dubbed "Neutron Jack" (in reference to the neutron bomb) for eliminating employees while leaving buildings intact. In Jack: Straight From The Gut, Welch states that GE had 411,000 employees at the end of 1980, and 299,000 at the end of 1985. Of the 112,000 who left the payroll, 37,000 were in sold businesses, and 81,000 were reduced in continuing businesses. In return, GE had increased its market capital tremendously.
In 1986, GE acquired NBC, which was located in Rockefeller Center; Welch subsequently took up an office in the GE Building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. During the 1990s, Welch helped to modernize GE by shifting from manufacturing to financial services through numerous acquisitions.
Welch adopted Motorola's Six Sigma quality program in late 1995. He led the company to massive revenues. In 1980, the year before Welch became CEO, GE recorded revenues of roughly $26.8 billion. In 2000, the year before he left, the revenues increased to nearly $130 billion. When Jack Welch left GE, the company had gone from a market value of $14 billion to one of more than $410 billion at the end of 2004, making it the most valuable and largest company in the world.
At the time of his retirement, Welch received a salary of $4 million a year, followed by his record retirement plan of $8 million a year. In 1999 he was named "Manager of the Century" by Fortune magazine.
There was a lengthy and well-publicized succession planning saga prior to his retirement between James McNerney, Robert Nardelli, and Jeffrey Immelt, with Immelt eventually selected to succeed him as Chairman and CEO. Nardelli became the CEO of Home Depot until his resignation in early 2007, while McNerney became CEO of 3M until he left that post to serve in the same capacity at Boeing.
Some industry analysts claim that Welch is given too much credit for GE's success. They contend that individual managers are largely responsible for the company's success. For example GE Capital, under Gary C. Wendt, contributed nearly 40% of the company's total earnings while NBC and Robert C. Wright worked to turn the network leading to five years of double-digit earnings growth. It is also held that Welch did not rescue GE from great losses as the company had 16% annual earnings growth during the tenure of his predecessor, Reginald H. Jones. Critics also say that "the pressure Welch imposes leads some employees to cut corners, possibly contributing to some of the defense-contracting scandals that have plagued GE, or to the humiliating Kidder, Peabody & Co. bond-trading scheme of the early 1990s that generated bogus profits".
Welch has also received criticism over the years for an apparent lack of compassion for the middle class and working class. Welch has publicly stated that he is not concerned with the discrepancy between the salaries of top-paid CEOs and those of average workers. When asked about the issue of excessive CEO pay, Welch has stated that such allegations are "outrageous" and has vehemently opposed proposed SEC reforms affecting executive compensation. Countering the public uproar over excessive executive pay (including backdating stock options, golden parachutes for nonperformance, and extravagant retirement packages), Welch stated that CEO compensation should continue to be dictated by the free market, without interference from government or other outside agencies. In addition, Welch is a vocal opponent of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.