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Taking it to the Max — GE Australia’s new CEO

Max York

Hours after the announcement that he’s been appointed CEO of GE in Australia, Max York, who was until now general manager of GE Aviation in the Australian region, is ready to lead his colleagues through change.

At 53, York who began his working life as an officer in the Royal Australian Navy has a prodigious capacity for work, is eager for the challenges ahead, considerate of others, and proud of GE’s achievements in the region to date.

“I’m excited and honoured to have the opportunity to lead this group of exceptional people. In a way, I’m sad to leave Aviation, but I’m fortunate I’ll still be able to keep an eye on it!” he says.

As head of GE Aviation in Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific for 14 years, York has piloted his team and grown his division through turbulent times in the industry while parenting a tribe of nine children with his wife, Amanda, and building strong partnerships with companies such as Qantas, Virgin Australia, Air New Zealand and Regional Express. In recent years he has also contributed to university advisory boards and helped direct the Advanced Manufacturing Council.

What’s his secret energy source?  “I love what I do. I love the people. I love this company. The work is interesting, the customers are fascinating.” And, he adds, “When you have a big family, you can’t afford to be tired. You’re on! I never have any trouble sleeping, that’s for sure.”

CEO of multinational, multi-industry GE in Australia is a dream job, but York recognises the corporation’s share-price drop as a wake-up moment in its long and innovative history: “This company has been around for 125 years, and the reason it is still so strong is because it has adapted and changed and overcome challenges as they arise. Right now we’re facing some tough challenges. John Flannery, the new global CEO is making changes so that we emerge stronger and better for it.”

York has the patience and persistence to work towards rewarding outcomes for customers and for GE. He cites working with Qantas on the recently rolled-out FlightPulse pilot app as one example of going beyond the low-hanging fruit of helping airlines to slash fuel costs. Refined flight paths and optimised engine maintenance have been achieved; the next step was to engage pilots in decisions that make incremental differences to fuel burn and emissions.

“FlightPulse is an awesome solution that involves people in building on the monitoring and fine-tuning of machines. Pilots are a very important part of the process, but it takes a lot of collaboration, a lot of time to identify, design and implement a solution they feel comfortable with.”

In other industries, too, he says, “Much of the easy stuff has been done; the next savings and efficiencies, are in that tail, in a new piece of software, or a new business approach, or changing up in more than one way — that’s what will make a difference.”

I’m thrilled to meet all the people in GE who I don’t know yet, to learn about how they do their jobs and how we can make it better for them and for their customers.

Good leadership, believes York, is also a long-term, incremental project: “You have to have that curiosity and hunger to be a better person. Every day you have to get up and have a moment of reflection: ‘I could have handled that better… What do I want to differently today? What kind of person do I want to be to my team? How do I get the best out of them?’ Your style is a function of all your experiences and your efforts to be better.”

York’s 18 years in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) after he signed up at the age of 17 formed the basis of his experience. It taught him, he says, about people, about himself, about self-discipline, planning and how to get things done.

In the RAN, he graduated with Bachelors and Masters degrees in  Electronics and Communications, and subsequently developed the RAN’s engineering, maintenance and logistics services. He served overseas and was quickly promoted.

York had attained the rank of Commander and was studying for an MBA when someone called him about a role in GE Aviation.

“I had four kids under six, and the next job in the Navy wasn’t the right job for my family. I would have had to go back to sea and move across the country. It was this confluence of circumstances, plus I’d always been fascinated by aviation as a child; I had all the models hanging from the ceiling in my bedroom, I knew all the WWII aircraft,” he says.

York was attracted by the prospect of growing up that childhood interest, of learning new things, living in his own home and working for “an iconic company”. He changed career tack to join GE as sales director of CFM engines and services, in January 2000.

“My defining memory of starting work here was, ‘Wow, look at this gene pool. These people are incredible! And I’d come from the military, where you had incredible people who would do anything, working really hard in tough situations. They were inspiring people to lead.”

GE he says is powered by a different kind of incredible human beings. Also incredibly intelligent and hardworking, they work creatively and with a twist on can-do that continues to make the company a commercial force. York used to joke when people asked, “‘What’s it like compared to the military?’ I’d say ‘The difference between GE and the military is that at GE people do what they’re told.’ That’s not in a command-and-control sense, but in the sense that GE people are in alignment. When GE decides to do something, everyone focuses and does it — that’s a very powerful thing.”

Unwavering in his support of colleagues and his team, York says he’s “excited to learn about all the other parts of GE that I don’t know as much about as I know about Aviation”. He recognises that each business, from Power to Healthcare, has its own subculture, influenced by different markets, pressures, cycles and technologies.

At the same time, he champions the “important common themes that run through the company: integrity is number one; then there’s the way we are really passionate about focusing on our customers; the way we want to provide the best technology, we don’t want to be just a commodity in any business that we’re in; and the way that we manage people and offer them development paths.”

To me, it’s nuts not to have a diverse workforce. Why would you want your business to not look like the world we live in? To narrow your pool of talent, opinion and creativity?

Whether he’s hosting Qantas CEO Alan Joyce at a GE event, chairing an industry meeting on how to welcome more women into careers in aviation, or helping to influence government policy to create a conducive environment for manufacturing in Australia, York always seems relaxed.

“I think people just want you to be yourself. They don’t want you to put on some act,” he says. “I also think you’re more relaxed when you’re prepared, you’ve done your homework, you know what you want to say and you have a plan — that’s always helpful. But there’s no overnight success. You don’t start by hanging out with CEOs.”

When York started at GE its portfolio included US media company NBC, it was a manufacturer of plastics, a provider of employers’ reinsurance, and GE Capital made up almost half of the company. These divisions have since been sold, while several companies have been strategically acquired. “We didn’t have Alstom in Power, we didn’t have Amersham in Healthcare, we didn’t have Renewable Energy in the portfolio,  and a whole bunch of other significant parts of the current business,” says York. “There were more employees inside the US, now there are more employees outside the US. GE has truly become a global company that’s focused on technology and digital.”

Today, as York officially takes the reins of GE Australia, his children range in age from 10 to 24. The three eldest are at university studying opera singing, engineering/commerce and fashion design. The thread that runs through all his children’s aspirations, says York, is that they’re attuned to change, “they don’t expect things to stay the same”.

York tucks his tie in his jacket pocket, picks up his two mobile phones — the workhorse and the family hotline — and steps into the current of change that is GE.  Honestly, he says, “My head is spinning. You know when you’ve been absorbing a lot of new information, and lots of emotions? It’s not every day you become CEO at a company like GE.”

It’s characteristic of York that he pushes that euphoric moment aside to say his first focus as CEO will be, “to help GE employees in three ways: to grow personally, to look after their customers better and to grow their GE businesses.”

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