GE’s Jeff Immelt tells Atlanta executives to invest and believe in their businesses

By Maria Saporta

One of the nation’s business leaders — Jeff Immelt — told Atlanta executives Wednesday that if they want their companies to thrive, they can’t sit on the sidelines unwilling to invest in the future.

Immelt, chairman and CEO of GE (General Electric), also is chairman of President Barack Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, an appointment made in January.

“If you are not investing, you are going to lose because there’s no great tailwind,” Immelt said. “If you are waiting on Washington to be confident again, really you are better off watching reruns of a Falcons game. I don’t think it (an economic recovery) is going to come from Washington. It’s got to come from you. We need confidence.”

Immelt was the guest of the Metro Atlanta Chamber at one of its Insights on Leadership programs. He was interviewed by Metro Atlanta Chamber President Sam Williams on a variety of topics, including the situation at GE, the economy, Atlanta, the president, sustainability and general business advice.

GE has significant operations in metro Atlanta, but Immelt let it be known that he would like to see GE expand in the state.

“We like to do business here,” Immelt said. “Our population here has never gone down. I expect it will always grow. There’s some manufacturing here. But we’ve got to be able to do more in Georgia.”

Immelt said that he comes to Atlanta so often that he almost feels like an insider. “I have never lived in Atlanta, but I feel I know this town,” he said.

Asked about the economy, Immelt said the last decade has been a “sea of volatility.” He also described the country has being in a “toxic mood.” But he said the United States needs to rebuild a sense of self confidence in order to reinvigorate its economy and remain globally competitive.

“We have a new set of competitors, and the bad news is they move faster than we have,” Immelt said, referring to China and other emerging countries.

When Immelt became CEO a decade ago, 30 percent of GE’s revenues came from overseas. Today, 70 percent of its revenues comes from its international operations. The company also has increased its investment in research and development — from 2 percent of its revenues to 6 percent.

Asked about sustainability, Immelt said GE has “invested a ton of money in clean energy products,” and there will always be a market for energy efficient products.

Immelt also said that it was only a matter of time before businesses will have to pay extra for carbon emissions.

“Any business person who does not think there’s going to be a price on carbon or carbon emissions is wrong,” Immelt stated flatly. Incidentally, he said that Southern Co. CEO Tom Fanning, for whom he has great respect, “violently” disagrees with him.

But he added that the Clean Air Act has had a positive impact in the United States.

“There are good regulations that drive positive change, and there are bad regulations that drive negative change,” he said.

Williams asked him about his appointment chairing Obama’s jobs council, asking him if he regularly sits across from the president discussing the economy.

“I’ve already taken enough grief,” Immelt joked. “I don’t have an office there (in the White House).”

Then he turned serious.

“I actually think we have got one country; and we have got one president,” Immelt said. “When you are asked to serve, you do it.”

Asked about whether Obama listens to him, Immelt said: “I find him to be smart. I think he’s listening. And we have got to keep pursuing those pro-growth policies that are going to create jobs and get the economy moving.”

But Immelt said he does not believe there’s one “silver bullet.” Instead it will be a combination of several initiatives, but preferably those that will not require Congressional approval. He said watching the debt ceiling debate in Congress was like watching a “car crash or an accident.”

Immelt also said that with the exception of the poor housing market, he believes the economy is improving.

“I think we are in a slow, steady improvement,” he said. “Personally, I think the real economy is a lot better than most people feel. Outside of housing, business is pretty robust. We are in the jet engine business, and we have never had a better demand for our product than we have right now.”

Immelt had especially nice things to say of Arthur Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons and a co-founder of the Home Depot.

“The NFL (National Football League) is supremely well run,” Immelt said. “I look at guys like Arthur Blank as national treasures. Arthur Blank is a great man.”

Asked what advice he would give Atlanta’s business leaders, Immelt said that first executives must realize that to their employees, they are the “only sane voice” they might hear among the clutter of television and the news.

“Be a positive voice,” Immelt said. “Show people the way.”

The next advice Immelt gave was to invest.

He said business are misguided if they’re “waiting for some magic potion” or for “political stability” or “for economic certainty.”

Next, Immelt said executives need to contribute to their communities.

“Do the things that you can uniquely do that are civically-minded,” he said.

And the last piece of advice he shared was: “Love to compete. Compete every day.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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