GE boss on mission to be big in China

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General Electric, the biggest company in the world, will focus on China as its key market of the future.

In his first public visit to the UK since taking over from Jack Welch as chief executive of the US firm in September last year, Jeff Immelt has spoken out about GE embracing a country that is rapidly opening itself to global business.

Although China's recent membership of the World Trade Organisation is seen as the catalyst, Mr Immelt talked of other factors. "China's hosting of the 2008 Olympics ... is going to show the world that China is a far cleaner place to do business than a lot of people imagine," he said. It's a hard-nosed commercial culture, and GE likes it."

As well as its heavily industrial operations, GE runs financial services, the NBC media network, a sprawling medical division and a huge white goods business. As China grows, said Mr Immelt, it will become a critical market for all of these.

"The Chinese economy is going to experience the fastest growth on earth and you can either ignore it or go with it. We ... are looking at major investments there," he said.

His focus on China is the first big strategy that distinguishes him from "Neutron" Jack Welch. When the celebrated management guru stepped down last year, he left a giant pair of shoes to fill. Mr Immelt now faces the dual challenge of maintaining the dominance of the house that Jack built while showing he has plenty of his own ideas. At his speech in London, he said China's rise will make the next 20 years a totally different environment from the one in which Mr Welch thrived.

Pointing out that world events have knocked the GE succession issue off Wall Street's agenda, he said: "I took over on 7 September 2001 and the world changed four days later. Now Enron has made everyone forget about Jack – er, what's his name?"

Nevertheless, the speech highlighted something the two have in common. Critics of obscure management terms and philosophies will be disappointed to learn it is a tradition Mr Immelt seems keen to continue. At GE, Mr Welch introduced a management theory known as "Six Sigma". Numerous books have attempted to explain it, but to many it remains a mystery. Unfortunately, the liberal peppering of the phrase during Mr Immelt's vision of the future suggests it is here to stay.