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A Full House: GE’s Customer Summit Draws Over 200 Global Executives

Brendan Coffey
September 02, 2019
Senior leaders from around the world spent last week in Crotonville, New York, for GE’s annual Global Customer Summit. More than 200 executives, including more than 140 customers, joined GE leaders and outside experts at GE’s leafy learning institute to discuss the interplay between globalization and nationalism, innovation, and business strategy.
Addressing the group during a candid hourlong question-and-answer session that touched on the company’s transformation, operations and strategy, GE Chairman and CEO H. Lawrence Culp Jr. said the Global Customer Summit was a great example of the breadth and nature of GE’s relationships around the world. Calling GE “the quintessential global company,” he told his audience when he thinks “about our team, our technologies — let alone the way we operate and the relationships we enjoy around the world — I continue to believe our best days are still very much ahead of us.”

Culp flew in on Thursday, the closing day of the summit, straight from strategy meetings at GE Aviation headquarters in Evendale, Ohio, as part of a review process that takes him to all GE businesses over several weeks. “We try to boil down strategy to its essence,” he said. “For me, it’s always been answers to the following two questions: What game are we playing and how do we win?”

To do that, Culp said he wanted to do a better job of making sure GE was serving “first and foremost” its customers. “There are times when we could be a little more focused on you and a little less on ourselves,” he said. “We are going to lean into that.”

Lean was a word Culp used a lot, especially in connection with lean management. “For me and for our company, ‘lean’ is much more than manufacturing,” he said. “It’s a mindset with respect to continuous improvement that can impact any aspect of any business.” Lean, he said, was applicable to safety, quality, as well as metrics important to customers, like on-time delivery, he said. “We know that if we do that, in turn, it will accrue benefits for our shareholders and all of our other stakeholders,” Culp said. “And for GE, there are many.”

Last week’s summit focused on markets outside of North America and Europe. Senior executives from Africa, China, India, Indonesia, Latin America, Japan, Australia and elsewhere gathered in Crotonville to listen to GE leaders and engineers, as well as external guests from top business schools. They even paid a visit to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point — just a short drive away — for a strategy session. Other themes included opportunities and challenges around infrastructure and the complex financing and deal mechanics of large projects like building power plants in developing markets.

In between the general sessions, smaller breakouts allowed attendees to work through strategic project planning and discuss access to marketing, as well as the world’s political volatility and emerging nationalism. Braindates, popular one-on-one and small group sessions, drilled even deeper and covered topics brought up by the guests themselves, allowing attendees to learn from their peers. These included theoretical topics (can electricity ever be free?) and practical discussions (business etiquette). Others focused on business-oriented meetings — like the electrification of Indonesia. GE is helping Indonesian energy companies add 35,000 megawatts of generation capacity (see video below).

The summit also provided attendees with GE insights into fields like digital disruption and business innovation. Munesh Makhija, vice president of advanced technologies at GE Research, detailed how GE earmarks its R&D investment to create products the market wants. The topics Makhija talked about included sustainable energy, precision medicine, hypersonic flight and 3D printing. Colin Parris, vice president of GE Software Research, detailed how GE applies data-mining strategies, used with great success in consumer goods by Silicon Valley, to develop predictive analytics and “digital twins” — essentially, virtual doubles of physical machines — to improve data security, predictive maintenance and product development.

Attendees also learned from half a dozen external experts on ways to approach disruption, globalization and nationalism. New York University’s Robert Salomon, for example, detailed how cultural and political issues make globalization much more difficult than executives realize, and that companies should expect 10 years of underperformance compared to native competitors when entering new markets.

Top image: GE's learning center in Crotonville, New York. Image credit: GE.