He played in anonymity, like almost every offensive lineman. But Jeffrey Immelt's fellow students at Dartmouth knew that he would find individual success, which he has as the CEO of General Electric.
At the turn of the century, General Electric CEO Jack Welch was preparing to choose his successor at GE. In the words of Business Week magazine, it was"the highest-prized succession race in corporate history."
There were three finalists, and two of them were former Ivy athletes. James McNerney won three letters pitching for the Yale baseball team. When he was passed over, he became Chairman and CEO of 3M. Jeffrey Immelt, Welch's choice as successor, was an offensive tackle who lettered twice on the Dartmouth football team.
If Welch had looked for for a successor on McNerney's and Immelt's respective teams, he would have found a wealth of talent. Among McNerney's teammates at Yale was Steve Greenberg, son of baseball great Hank Greenberg. Greenberg would help found what is now the ESPN Classic television network.
One of Immelt's football teammates was Nick Lowery, who would go on to an eighteen year NFL career, the longest of the 204 Ivy NFLers. A kicker, he set the NFL's career field goal percentage at 76.1% in 1984, and was only the second player in NFL history to score 1700 points (after George Blanda). Another was Jimmie Lee Solomon, who's currently an executive with major league baseball. Another teammate was Reggie Williams, who would go on to play in two Super Bowls, serve as a Cincinnati city councilman, and organize Disney's Wide World of Sports facility at Walt Disney World.
Growing up in the Cincinnati suburbs, Immelt played football at Finneytown High. At Dartmouth he joined a fraternity and became its president, later telling the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine "the basement of Phi Delt was probably the best preparation for the boardroom. I learned how to be really fast on my feet," he remembered. "It made you pretty adept at managing an unruly crowd, which is not a bad background for a CEO."
Others saw signs of future leadership on the football field. A freshman team captain, Immelt organized a humorous coach of the week award. Former teammate Curt Oberg told Business Week that "when the rest of us were feeling our way through college, he was taking it to the next level."
He played on some pretty decent football teams as well. While they didn?t win any Ivy titles they came in third with identical 4-3 records in 1976 and 1977, and Immelt played alongside future NFL greats Williams and Lowery, as well as Gregg Robinson, who played for the New York Jets in 1978.
Earning degrees in math and economics in 1978 Immelt went back to Cincinnati and took a position with the hometown company Procter and Gamble, where he was officemates with future Microsoft CEO (and former Harvard football manager) Steve Ballmer. After two years he moved on to Harvard for an MBA, and after earning it in 1982 moved to General Electric, where his father had worked for 38 years.
His ascent up the GE corporate ladder was rapid. From an initial position in GE's corporate marketing department Immelt spent six years in sale and marketing for GE Plastics, and by 1989 was a vice president of consumer service in GE's Appliances division.
It's here that Immelt caught the eye of CEO Welch. He deftly handled the recall of a million refrigerators, exhorting workers from atop a forklift at GE's Louisville plant. Immelt had a misstep when he was promoted to lead GE Plastics. "I spent an extended period in [Jack Welch's] doghouse in 1994," he recalled to the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. "He told me 'you had the worst year in the company last year, If you don't fix it, you're going to have to go.'" He apparently fixed it, because by 1997 he was named president and CEO of GE Medical Systems and tabbed as Welch's possible successor.
Taking the helm at GE on September 7, 2001, Immelt's leadership style has been characterized as moving away from Welch's style toward long-term growth based on idea generation and marketing.
One area where he has taken bold steps is with environmental issues. Immelt reversed Jack Welch's long-held opposition to the Hudson River cleanup necessitated by GE's decades-long dumping of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from electrical equipment factories, and launched an "Ecoimagination" campaign to reduce GE's environmental footprint and spur development of cleaner technologies. One wonders whether his winning Dartmouth football's Earl Hamilton Award in 1978, given to the player who best "displays friendliness, sense of humor, and appreciation of the outdoors," influenced his policies here.
"In my day I was a frequently serious student, a decent football player, and boy did I have fun," Immelt told a Dartmouth graduating class in 2004. With his Dartmouth football trophies said to be on display in his GE office, it's safe to assume his football experiences are present in his thoughts as he leads General Electric.
— Stephen Eschenbach