Jack Welch, who led General Electric Co. for 20 years and got his start with GE's fledgling polymer products operation, died March 1. He was 84.
Welch was best-known for building GE into a high-flying industrial giant as chairman and CEO from 1981 to 2001, when he retired. Under Welch's leadership, GE's market value grew from $12 billion to more than $400 billion. He earned the nickname "Neutron Jack" for slashing the jobs of people who didn't perform well enough while rewarding strong players.
And it all started out in plastics.
Welch, who held a doctorate in chemical engineering, started at GE in 1960 as a junior engineer in the polymer business in Pittsfield, Mass. His moves to build up GE Plastics shaped many of his management principles. The Plastics Hall of Fame inducted Welch at NPE 2006, and his failure to show up at the ceremony in Chicago angered some industry veterans.
They also fondly remembered Welch leading major customer dinners at NPEs, where he took questions. But Welch had a humble beginning. He recalled those early days in a Plastics News profile for his hall of fame honor.
"It was a fun, small band of guys trying to build something from nothing. It was a backroom startup," Welch said.
GE was an industrial giant. The plastics unit was like a small family business. Welch and the other plastics employees would celebrate each new contract, stopping off for a drink or throwing pizza parties.
Welch told PN that he could've easily gotten lost in the pack of well-established units at General Electric, but he was able to stand out for building the small, entrepreneurial plastics business.
During his job interview, Lexan polycarbonate legend Dan Fox told Welch he would be in charge of moving a new material, polyphenylene oxide, out of the laboratory and into commercial production. That became Noryl.
"We had nothing to do with Lexan. Lexan was the gold standard," he said in the PN story. "We had this PPO, which was difficult to mold, and we were having trouble getting volume applications for it. We looked at Lexan with very envious eyes because it was clear, tough as steel."
Welch was assigned to build a PPO pilot plant in Pittsfield. One day he was sitting in his office across the street when there was a big explosion. He ran over and a big piece of the roof and ceiling had collapsed. No one was seriously injured.
Welch was 28. He was nervous. He explained what caused the blast at the reactor and how to fix the problem in a meeting with Charlie Reed, a corporate group executive, the highest-ranking GE executive with hands-on experience in chemicals.
"That day, he was incredibly understanding," Welch wrote in his 2001 book, Jack: Straight From the Gut. Reed told him it was better to figure out problems at the pilot-plant stage than at a full-scale petrochemical plant.
In 1964, GE's board of directors approved a new, $10 million PPO plant.
Another challenge came when tests showed PPO over time could become brittle and crack under high temperatures, risking a huge potential market as a replacement for copper pipe for hot water.
After six months of intense effort, the problem eventually was fixed. Fox led a team of chemists who blended the PPO with polystyrene and rubber, creating the blended Noryl as a modified PPO.
Noryl became a huge seller. In 1968, Welch got promoted to general manager of the plastics department, which was renamed GE Plastics. The company promoted him to vice president of the chemical and metallurgical division in 1972. He kept moving up, all the way to the top spot.
GE's chairman and CEO, H. Lawrence Culp Jr., issued a statement about Welch's passing: "Today is a sad day for the entire GE family. Jack was larger than life and the heart of GE for half a century. He reshaped the face of our company and the business world."