GE, Dow and Boeing executives talk U.S. competitiveness and partisan politics

“Nobody gives a damn about imagination right now, they only care about work,” Jeff, Immelt, president and CEO of General Electric said referring to the company’s old slogan, “Imagination at work.”

“So, now we talk about ‘GE works.’”

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Immelt delivered the remark during a panel discussion moderated by NBC’s “Meet the Press” host David Gregory on Monday at an event convened to gather new ideas and viewpoints on U.S. competitiveness from chief executives of three of the nation’s largest and most storied companies.

Immelt was joined by Andrew Liveris, president, chairman and chief executive officer at DOW Chemical; and Jim McNerny, president, chairman and chief executive officer of Boeing. The discussion ran the gamut from politics and policy to job creation and the current nature of global competition.

Why can’t Congress just get along?

The three executives were collectively optimistic about the future of American competitiveness, a predictable outlook given the declining (albeit slowly) unemployment rate. But they also pointed a collective finger at a current political climate rife with polarization and severely lacking in collaboration and consensus on policy initiatives critical to competitiveness and economic growth.

“The financial crisis promulgated a political backlash that produced a lot of regulation in the financial services area,” said McNerney, adding that the discussion then “splattered” over other sectors and that “the dialog with our regulators now tends to be more confrontational than it should be and more confrontational than it’s designed to be.”

“What I worry about is the political animal takes over,” said Dow’s Liveris at one point during the discussion.

The two-, four-, and six-year election cycle, Liveris said, breeds uncertainty, presenting all-too-narrow windows for compromise. Given this, McNerney predicted that President Obama and a GOP-controlled congress will reach a compromise only after the 2012 election. McNerney didn’t specify if he meant to predict that the president would win a second term, or if such compromises would come during the lame duck period immediately following the November election.

“That dynamic is just killing us right now, as a country,” McNerney said. “It’s ridiculous that we have to wait that long.”

A uneven playing field

Asked what government can do for industry leaders to incentivize job creation and, more broadly, economic growth, all three men agreed that a more hands-off regulatory model was needed. “I’m a little bit more of the regulate-us-properly-and-then-get-out-of-the-way kind of guy,” said McNerney.

But the “we follow the laws, leave us alone” approach, said Immelt, doesn’t fit today’s business zeitgeist, since U.S. companies such as GE, have had their U.S. competitors replaced by heavily subsidized companies abroad, particularly in Europe and China.

“I don’t really have American competitors anymore,” said Immelt. “Love us or hate us, I’m your guy.”

“Countries are competing like companies,” echoed Liveris. “We know it’s not a level playing field.

“We need the type of government that doesn’t give us a zero-sum answer of bringing us back to the country,” Liveris said, tagging back to the assessment that politicians, in their current approach to politics and policy, presented a barrier to continued growth.“We need to improve the quality of people who are regulating us.”

“Everything today gets cast as corporate welfare,” said Immelt, citing subsidies in Europe and government-financed infrastructure in China. “It’s not really corporate welfare to put us on the same playing field that our global competitors are.”

On the question of demand for their products, all three executives agreed their consumer base was located almost entirely outside of the United States. “It used to be if you won in the United States, you won globally,” said McNerney. “Today it’s the opposite.”

“I just don’t feel un-American when I’m selling GE engines around the world,” said Immelt who had, in earlier remarks kicking off the event, expressed his view that creating jobs outside of the United States did not preclude generating job growth within the U.S. But Immelt was also quick to reassure audience members that increased product sales and job creation outside the U.S. would not force an upending of America’s traditional governing structure or corporate ethos.

“The U.S. isn’t going to be China,” he said simply.

The conversation turned to outsourcing with McNerney expressing some regret regarding the pace with which companies moved jobs overseas during the past decade.

“I think we, lemming-like, extended our supply chains a little too globally. . . .We underestimated in some cases the value of our workers back here” said McNerney, “So, I think there’s a recalibration. . . . I think you’re gong to see more come back to the U.S.”

This return to the United States won’t just be for business reasons, the Boeing chief said, it’s also an issue of patriotism, or at least the perception of it.

“We want to be good citizens,” he said.

“I’m no Clint Eastwood,” said Liveris — a native Australian — referring to the popular Super Bowl ad featuring the actor, director and producer on behalf of Chrysler.

“That,” he continued referring to fueling U.S. job creation, “is an American thing to do.”

Asked where policy makers needed to start in order to help companies continue to grow and hire, Immelt cited the deficit — an apt reference considering President Obama’s release of his budget proposal Monday. “Reducing the deficit is probably job one,” Immelt said.

What’s in store for U.S. competitiveness?

On a positive note, all three men agreed that the United States was not in the midst of decline.

“I think without a question that we’re more competitive than we were 10 years ago,” McNerney said.

But corporate failures, such as Solyndra, which dominate headlines were seen by the three chiefs as undermining a more broadly relevant storyline of across-the-board corporate success. “Solyndra does not define the solar industry,” said Liveris, citing new innovations in solar energy that had nothing to do with the failed company. “Innovation is alive and well here. We just have to get these pieces to work together again.”

In the end, all three expressed concern over students’ willingness to study the sciences, technology, mathematics and engineering, but those set-backs didn’t obscure all three’s positive outlook for America’s competitiveness future.

“This country’s still good at doing hard things,” Immelt said.

Immelt was also keen to cut through the image of GE as a corporate monolith. In the age of the “99 percent” vs. the “1 percent,” all three executives understood, while not saying so directly, that the public was looking for more compassionate, responsible corporate governance. “We don’t stand on our own,” Immelt said. “None of us feel like we’re above it all. We are a part of this system, we really are. And we’ve got to reflect the era of the time.”

Future government action needed

All three leaders were asked what the government should focus on over the next six months to keep growth on track. For McNerney, it was exports, formulating a sensible immigration visa, a globally competitive tax policy, a strong statement on education and addressing the underlying problems plaguing the nation’s industrial base.

For Dow’s Liveris, government’s focus should be on an advanced manufacturing agenda and making the U.S. a “one-stop shop to investment,” something Obama, according to Liveris, had started to create with the reorganization of the Commerce Department.

GE’s Immelt called on lawmakers to go back and re-read the deficit commission report. Beyond that, education was top on his agenda.

“This country is just not going to win having math and science ranked 25th 27th in the world,” Immelt said.

If the world really thought U.S. companies, both small and large, were going to bring their A-game, said Immelt, “we would shock people in how well we could do.”

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