Power Player

2007 Most Respected Business Leader

It’s been a John Rice week. On Thursday, he boarded one of General Electric’s fleet of corporate jets and spent four days huddling in business meetings in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Quatar.

Then it was off to India where he met with U.S. Ambassador David Mulford, V. Thulasidas, chairman of Air India, and an array of government leaders, venture partners, current and potential GE customers and staffers. He flew back to Atlanta on a Friday and was in his office at the close of business.

“I probably travel to 25 or 30 countries a year,” says Rice, one of four GE vice chairmen and president and CEO of Atlanta-based GE Infrastructure. “Typically, I’ll arrange an agenda that basically has our local teams putting me to work. I’ll say, ‘OK, which customers, which meetings, which activities are going to be important and helpful to you?’”

That’s a tall order because Rice, 50, now oversees GE’s Energy, Aviation, Rail, Oil & Gas, Water, Energy Financial Services, and Aviation Financial Services operations, businesses that generate more than $54 billion in annual revenue and employ 90,000 people worldwide. (GE has approximately 5,000 employees in the Atlanta area.)

Rice, who arrived in Atlanta in 2000, estimates he spends 75 percent of his time on the road. Nonetheless, the thoughtful, soft-spoken executive has brought a deep personal and corporate commitment to his adopted hometown, serving as a trustee of Emory University and Emory Healthcare, the Georgia Research Alliance, the Woodruff Arts Center. He’s also past chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and serves on Mayor Shirley Franklin’s Atlanta Committee for Progress.

“John is an extremely dedicated businessman and community partner who has made vital contributions to our city,” Franklin says. “Atlanta has had the benefit of the same extensive knowledge and leadership skills that he has demonstrated in making General Electric a worldwide competitive organization.”

GE’s Atlanta employees consistently turn out en masse for volunteer and other civic outreach programs, often with Rice and his top executives taking the lead. “I don’t try to inflict my choices on others,” he says, “but I encourage our business leaders to set the right example.” In 2005, 1,000 GE workers showed up for Hands On Atlanta Day, the largest corporate contingent in the metro area for the fifth year in a row.

“Finding the time is hard,” Rice adds, “but we all make time for the things we think are important. A person who has been as blessed as I have has an obligation to do things for people who are less fortunate and to help in areas where people need help.”

For his civic contributions, his keen vision of the responsibilities of leadership within and beyond the corporate suite, Georgia Trend has named John Rice 2007’s Most Respected Business Leader.

Within GE’s vast Infrastructure segment (one of the six operating units that make up the parent corporation), products and services range from aircraft leasing, oil and gas exploration to building locomotives, jet engines, wind turbines and nuclear power plants. In simple terms: the collection of energy (oil and gas extraction), the conversion of energy (taking those molecules and converting them to electrons or another form of power) and the consumption of energy.

Infrastructure is expected to grow in the 15 percent range in 2007. Revenues from energy alone will approach $20 billion. “When you look at it,” Rice says, “energy is a lot of what we’re about.”

In the last years, disruptions in Iraq’s oil exports, threats from Venezuela, uncertainty in Nigeria, building animosity in Iran, concerns about global warning, Enron’s meltdown, all suggest energy is a market that is turbulent far beyond the spike and drift of oil and natural gas prices. The speed and extent of nuclear power generation, for example, is a hot button issue in India and China as well as Iran and North Korea.

“We want to be involved in a broad array of activities and offer a portfolio of power generation options for our customers whether they want a nuclear reactor or a wind turbine,” Rice says. “There are 2 billion [people] in the world today who don’t have access to any reliable form of power. Until that gets solved, there’s plenty for us to do. Quite frankly it’s exciting.”

It’s also what keeps John Rice awake at night.

An Amazing Run

In a corporate world where employees now average three years in a job before jumping ship, John Rice is a rara avis. He’s been with GE for nearly 29 years, overseeing everything from corporate audits to appliance sales, quite a run given the siren song of better, faster, quicker “opportunities” and the cutthroat competitors blocking the path to advancement in any Fortune 500 environment.

“He’s had an amazing run,” says one former GE executive. “At GE, if you screw up in just one job, you’re immediately sent to the ‘penalty box,’ a dead end position that you have to claw your way out of. Then, of course, you have to have a ‘rabbi’ (mentor) to look out for you. The problem is if your rabbi gets axed you go with him.”

“The competition is tough,” Rice says. “Life is tough. Some days are better than others, but I’ve never felt the urge to leave. I never worried about my next job. I always felt great about my ability to make a difference. When the time came to move, I was never the one who had cabin fever. It was the company saying, ‘We’d like you to do this next.’”

One of those jobs was running GE Plastics’ Asia/Pacific operations in Singapore, where Rice spent two years. He relocated his family 11 times in 21 years before arriving in Atlanta and beginning to put down roots.

The Asia experience was particularly meaningful. Rice had grown up squarely in the mainstream. He was born in Summit, NJ, an affluent suburb across the Hudson from Manhattan, attended public schools, worked his share of odd jobs, played team sports, and attended Hamilton College, a small private school in upstate New York. He likens character development to building a house:

“You start with a foundation, and then you put floors on the building. The foundation has to be strong. That starts with your parents and the way you’re brought up. Your educational experience gives you another set of floors, then you start working … ”

To continue the metaphor, living in Singapore and traveling across Asia was the equivalent of sticking a pagoda on top of Rice’s ranch house. “As a white male born in the U.S., I got to experience what diversity was,” he says. “I was the diverse one. When you’re riding on a subway in Tokyo and you’re 6’ 3” and everyone is looking at you like you’re from outer space, you get to feel what ‘other’ is.”

At the Great Wall, passersby would scramble to pose for photographs with his blond young sons. “My kids began to get it that they were the different ones. It helped me understand the importance of appreciating differences, valuing differences, maybe being more sensitive to the issues of diversity.”

GE’s late 1990s decision to move its huge infrastructure business (operating in 120 countries) to Atlanta was made at the highest corporate echelons, but diversity certainly played a role, as did proximity to major customers, recruiting potential, ease of travel, quality of life and education. “Ultimately, it’s always a business decision,” Rice says. “How is it going to be good for the company?”

Atlanta’s business community – in earlier decades a kind of good ol’ Buckhead boys’ club – was especially welcoming. “They’re receptive to newcomers,” Rice says. “Open and interested in having people participate and not necessarily in a flashy way. It’s about getting stuff done, not getting your picture in the newspaper.”

Those who know Rice, an executive who constantly juggles talent and resources to yield the “one plus one equals three” dividend demanded of any good leader – without sacrificing quality or humanity – say that’s precisely the opportunity he needed.

“He sets a real high standard,” says Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, “but he also has a lot of empathy for people who are trying to meet that standard. I don’t know many CEOs who have empathy.”

Dr. Michael Johns, Emory University Chancellor and CEO of Woodruff Health Services, met Rice at a breakfast meeting Sam Nunn hosted for incoming GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt. The two immediately hit it off. Johns, who oversees the university’s clinical arm – a healthcare system that administers 3 million patient visits and 50,000 hospital admissions annually – says board member Rice focuses rigorously on constantly improving the quality of healthcare, undoubtedly an extension of GE’s Six Sigma approach to quality control. (Six Sigma measures how far a particular process deviates from perfection. Measure how many defects there are in a process and you can systematically figure out how to eliminate them and get as close to zero as possible.)

“John doesn’t need to sit on our boards to have his ticket punched,” Dr. Johns says. “He gets the vision very fast. Grabs on to it, sees what you’re trying to accomplish big-picture. Then he asks the kind of penetrating questions that others might not even see the need to ask. Questions that challenge your thinking and take you to another level of activity.”

Funds For Education

In 2002, GE donated $1 million to Southside High School, reportedly the largest grant ever made to an Atlanta public school. The school was one of 20 high schools given such grants as part of the corporation’s college bound program. Its goal for Southside was straightforward and quantifiable: Double the number of graduates (35 percent in 2002) who go on to college, technical or trade school. Its approach was strategic and tactically sound as a GE business plan: Use the money to fund SAT preparation classes, give annual scholarships for students who earn the highest SAT scores, provide orientation for incoming ninth-graders, create summer programs focusing on math and science, offer weekend computer skills workshops for parents.

“The thinking is,” Rice says, “if we get parents interested in computers, it’ll help the kids stay interested.”

Five years later, Rice says test scores and graduation rates among the mostly African-American student body have surged dramatically. “As a company we have always felt that education is critical to the success of our society,” he says. “If we’re going to be able to compete globally, we have to educate kids who are equipped to take care of themselves when they graduate from high school, contribute to society and be productive.”

These are familiar statements endlessly parroted by educators, business types and politicians, and all-too-often forgotten. When you talk to John Rice, you get the uncanny sense that he believes these truths as intensely as he believes in GE, that he worries about these faceless American kids struggling up and the billions of Third World kids huddled in the shadow of his corporate jet. He worries about them as much as he worries about his own sons, that he will somehow summon the time and energy in his intensely active life to try to do something positive for them, even if comes at a cost to himself.

“John is at the opposite end of the CEOs who are driven by ego,” says Williams, who has watched scores of the breed move through his organization over the years. “He is a very sincere, humble man.”

Ironically, Rice is also a man who insists he’s never had a defining moment in his life. That itself is a kind of definition. “It’s funny,” he says, staring out the windows of his Cobb County office at the faded green hills of a late winter afternoon. “Titles are an interesting thing. You never forget who you are and how you grew up. I’m the same person today I was the first day I started with GE. I have a different title, my office is a little bigger, but I don’t think I’m fundamentally any different.

“My goal? I want people to say, ‘He is who he says he is.’ Nothing more. I don’t want people to think I’m great if I’m not. Or think I’m left if I’m right or vice versa. I want people to see me for who I am. If that’s good enough, great. If not, that’s OK too.”

John Rice has other things to worry about. Lots of them.

Categories: Opinions