Thursday, July 09, 2009

Finally, A CEO Speaks Up on How to Renew America

Finally, A CEO Speaks Up on How to Renew America

10:40 AM Monday June 29, 2009
by Steve Prokesch

A couple of weeks ago I met with GE's CEO Jeff Immelt and we were talking about the financial meltdown, the deep recession, and what it would take to fix America. He was outspoken about how business and government had let down the American people and the need for radical change.

That's fine, I said, but if he felt that way, why hadn't he spoken up publicly? Immelt ran from the room and quickly returned with a speech he was working on--one he delivered last week at the Detroit Economic Club. This was his speech and not something he had fobbed off to a speechwriter, he told me.

I urge you to watch it, here:

Immelt exhorted Americans to give up the notion that the U.S. can make it as a services-led, consumption-based economy, where "a mortgage broker is pulling down $5 million a year while a Ph.D. chemist is earning $100,000."

The country must refocus on manufacturing and R&D and must strive to be a leading exporter, he said. He announced that GE was opening an advanced manufacturing and software technology center outside of Detroit near the headquarters of Visteon, the auto parts maker that recently sought bankruptcy protection.

Coincidentally, "Restoring American Competitiveness," an article in the July-August special issue of the Harvard Business Review makes the same case about the importance of manufacturing. It warns that the erosion of the U.S. manufacturing base is seriously undermining the country's ability to innovate. (So much for the idea that we can succeed by letting other countries manufacture the products we invent!)

In his speech, Immelt offered a vision for how the business and government together can revive the economy and solve grand challenges such as clean energy and affordable health care. "We should welcome the government as a catalyst for leadership and change," he said, calling for a "real public-private partnership." (This from a self-described "Republican and free market guy.")

Finally, he lectured his fellow business leaders to take personal responsibility for turning things around. "We must end the impression that American CEOs are short-term speculators," he says.