The Corporate Connection

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GE CEO Jeff Immelt reflects on a 120-year partnership with Purdue and looks to the future

Caroline Janney

By Tanya G. Brown

Jeffrey Immelt took the reigns as chairman and chief executive officer of GE four days before the terrorist attacks of 2001. Weathering the storm that followed would have proved challenging for any new CEO, but Immelt had the advantage of a nearly 20-year career with the company to help anchor him. In the decade that has followed, GE has been named “America’s Most Admired Company” in a poll conducted by Fortune magazine and one of “The World’s Most Respected Companies” in polls by Barron’s and the Financial Times.

Former chair of President Barack Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, Immelt has set his sights on fortifying and expanding the global company’s relationship with Purdue University. GE remains the top employer of Purdue graduates over the most recent five-year period. Its research and development offices work directly with Purdue faculty and students on multiple projects, many of which Immelt hopes to see firsthand during a visit to the university currently scheduled for this October.

In late summer, Immelt took a few minutes to discuss his company’s corporate partnership with Purdue via e-mail and reflect on the history and the future of the GE/Purdue relationship.

Question: Discuss the history of the relationship between GE and Purdue. How did the partnership originally form and how has it changed over the years?

Answer: The relationship with Purdue is older than GE itself and dates back to our founder, Thomas Edison. In fact, Reginold Fessenden, the first faculty to be titled electrical engineer at Purdue, was at one time Edison’s assistant. Purdue was also one of our very early customers and the “first west of the Alleghenies.” So our relationship is longstanding. The unique partnership between academia and industry is one of the core strengths of our country’s growth and future prosperity. And Purdue’s and GE’s relationship over the past century has helped to lead our country in technological innovation and leadership.  

As markets have grown, so has our relationship with Purdue. In the 1920s, we worked together to make the electrical grid practical and less vulnerable to lightning strikes. Purdue alumnus Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon wearing a boot made of GE silicone. And just a couple of years ago, with Professor Charlie Bouman, we made medical images safer for children with VEO ‘ultra low’ radiation-dose, high-clarity Computed Tomography.

Today, our teams collaborate on smart grid technology enabling a Green Energy future, better diagnostics to detect traumatic brain injury, advanced propulsion methods for aviation, and much more.

Our relationship today is stronger than ever as Purdue and GE continue to find common areas of research. In addition, Purdue continues to be the top placement for students into GE and we have the most active number of alumni within our ranks.

Question: Why does Purdue stand out among other higher education institutions as a partner for the company? What makes Purdue uniquely suited to be of use to GE?

Answer: At our core, GE is a technology company, and we succeed based on the talent we recruit. GE recruits from practically every college at Purdue. GE has historically hired more students from Purdue than any other university in the world. Purdue ranks at the top for number of alumni working at GE. It is a special relationship that has been adapting and growing for more than a century.

The values of GE and Purdue match up well. In addition to their world-class education, Purdue graduates tend to be grounded, self-aware, and ready for practical experience. This fits well with GE’s meritocracy and learning culture. Purdue is teaching and researching in the areas that GE works.

Purdue prepares students for GE through technical acumen and strategic initiatives in and outside the classroom. You have to be a cross-functional collaborative business partner to be successful at GE, and Purdue students excel with the class structure Purdue offers.

Question: What is your personal impression of Purdue? How does that impression play into your vision for the company?

Answer: GE works on things that really matter. We are the largest infrastructure company in the world. We are a mission-based company; we build, power, move, and cure. We are inventive and optimistic. In Edison’s words, “we look at what the world needs and we proceed to invent it.” That spirit, that mission, has us working on what I consider to be the major productivity drivers of our time: the shale gas revolution and how we meet our energy challenges; the Industrial Internet and how we use software and analytics to help us work smarter and more efficiently; advance manufacturing and how we are creating new jobs as we a reinvent what we make and how we make it.

When you match all of that with Purdue — a world-class university graduating the best students, undergraduate and graduate, that are prepared to make an immediate impact — there is no limit to what we can do together.

GE understands that it goes beyond recruiting Purdue students. It starts with the overall relationship, at all levels and starting with the students. It also includes collaborative research, sharing best practices with the Purdue Research Foundation on the commercialization of technology, and Purdue alumni giving back in any way they can.

Question: What made you decide to visit the Purdue campus? 

Answer: Purdue President Mitch Daniels and I have known each other for years. Early on, I told him that in his new role he needed to become the “patron saint of engineering.” When President Daniels extended the invitation, I was more than happy to oblige.

Other senior leaders at GE consistently visit Purdue to check into research projects and recruit. We enjoy the robust relationship we share with Purdue, which includes everyone from Purdue interns at GE to our senior staff alumni.

Question: What do you hope to accomplish while on campus, and what do you see as next steps after the visit is completed?

Answer: I’m keenly interested in seeing what the faculty and students are working on — looking for new sources of innovation and areas for collaboration. I want to share with the students, faculty, and administration about the latest innovations from GE, and how Purdue students and faculty are impacting those innovations.

There is a strong partnership already between GE and Purdue, working on some of the most pressing problems of our time, including how to redefine electricity infrastructure to be more sustainable with renewable and smart grid technologies; how to enhance medical diagnostic imaging to better detect traumatic brain injury; how to achieve the next generation of efficiency benefits for aviation through advanced propulsion technologies; and much, much more.

It could be tough to decide which projects to visit, but I’m looking forward to working in as many of them as I can.

Tanya Brown is the director of communications at the University of Tennessee College of Law and a freelance writer.

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