Jack Welch, General Electric’s former chief executive, on Thursday sought to shield his successor from a media firestorm stirred by comments Mr Welch made a day earlier on GE’s own business-news network.
Mr Welch told CNBC’s Squawk Box programme on Wednesday that Jeffrey Immelt, GE’s chief executive, had “a credibility issue” for missing Wall Street’s first-quarter profit estimates weeks after reaffirming the company’s guidance.
“He’s getting his ass kicked,” Mr Welch said. “He apologised. Things happen fast.”
Mr Welch’s words resounded through corporate America’s boardrooms quickly too, prompting the legendary business leader’s return to CNBC on Thursday to clarify his views on GE and his hand-picked successor.
“Nothing, nothing, nothing is as disgusting to me as some old CEO chirping away about how things aren’t as good under the new guy as they were under him,” he said.
“If I had something bad to say, I never would have gone on,” he added.
Mr Welch, who ceded his post as the conglomerate’s top executive to Mr Immelt in 2000, told the Financial Times that his successor was doing a “hell of a job”.
“The company has had seven great years,” he said. “I am a Jeff Immelt fan.”
Mr Welch said he had spoken to Mr Immelt before going on air and had tried to contact him after his appearance but was unable to do so.
Mr Welch, who still owns a significant share in GE, said he went on air to bolster Mr Immelt’s position and rebuff the “ridiculous” notion of a break-up of the group.
Mr Immelt attributed the disappointing quarterly results to the unprecedented market upheaval in March, which drove Bear Stearns to the brink of collapse and forced GE to write down the value of certain assets and securities.
CNBC had promoted Mr Welch’s remarks on its website following his Wednesday appearance. A news story appeared on CNBC.com headlined: “Jack Welch: GE CEO Immelt Has ‘Credibility Issue’.”
A day later the show’s anchors appeared to play down Mr Welch’s critique, suggesting his words had been taken out of context.
“It is a sound-bite culture we live in, Jack,” Squawk Box’s Joe Kernan said.
In a column he penned for Business Week magazine, Mr Welch wrote that his remarks were interpreted to “mean the exact opposite of what I intended”.
“The idea that I was there to criticise Jeff is crazy,” he told the FT.
“Why would I want to publicly criticise my successor at a company where I have invested most of my wealth? It doesn’t make any sense.”