Review

Jack: Straight From the Gut

Jack Welch with John A. Byrne

Jack Welch's memoir, JACK: Straight from the Gut, is part autobiography and part business theory text. Welch covers his fast trip from General Electric employee to General Electric CEO, his years in the top job (including an in–depth look at the philosophical positions he brought to and developed while holding that position) and the recent search for his replacement --- a search that culminated with his retirement in 2001. In the end, however, JACK is less the story of its author and his theories than it is a love letter to the men and women who helped Jack Welch recreate General Electric over the past two decades.

That might not be what you would expect from a CEO whose most famous moniker in the press during the 1980s was "Neutron Jack" --- a name he was saddled with as he vastly downsized GE while simultaneously building posh new buildings for the folks who were spared the ax. But as JACK makes clear, Welch's unwavering search for the best and the brightest people to manage and work at GE allowed him to reshape the huge company into a model of efficiency and idea–swapping that can accomplish far more with far fewer people than it did prior to Welch's accession to the CEO's chair. Relentless in his efforts to destroy corporate bureaucracy, Welch created a culture of accountability and teamwork that he persuasively argues is the foundation of GE's continued success.

The book is filled to bursting with anecdotes about the men and women who work at GE. Spreading the credit liberally, Welch tells stories of top–flight executives and union production workers with equal gusto, relishing the successes at every level of the vast company and its many divisions. Welch is also willing to name names when things didn't go well --- though the name he most often mentions in this regard is his own --- or when a someone was unable to adjust to GE's new corporate culture, making it clear that he is a man who rejoices in the success of others while feeling deep and personal disappointment when someone fails to live up to his expectations.

The book is driven along by Welch's chatty, excited style, crafted with the help of co–writer John A. Byrne, a senior writer at Business Week magazine. This engaging storytelling keeps the book afloat during extended passages detailing the terms of leveraged buyouts, contract negotiations, or how GE increased its margins in this or that industry.

Those sort of passages make it clear that despite an aggressive marketing campaign for the book, JACK is not necessarily a general interest business book. After all, Welch talks about deals involving millions upon millions of dollars as if they were made with pocket change; he argues for the importance of huge compensation packages to attract and keep quality employees; and he devotes a chapter to giving advice to fellow and future CEO's of large companies --- a niche audience if ever there was one. He also makes no effort to disguise his workaholic nature, glossing over the break up of his first marriage, heart surgery, and various other aspects of his life away from GE in just a few paragraphs scattered here and there. Many readers may well marvel at Welch's business savvy and commitment to success, while simultaneously wondering how his story and ideas apply to them personally or to the smaller, less cash–rich businesses for which they work.

Even so, JACK is an energizing book that tells an American dream story of an unconventional businessman who climbed to the top of one of the world's biggest companies and made it even bigger. Along the way, the reader meets a Jack Welch whose clear enthusiasm and affection for those with whom he worked stands in sharp contrast to his "Neutron Jack" reputation.

Reviewed by Rob Cline (rjbcline@aol.com) on January 22, 2011

Jack: Straight From the Gut
Jack Welch with John A. Byrne

  • Publication Date: September 11, 2001
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Business Plus
  • ISBN-10: 0446528382
  • ISBN-13: 9780446528382