General Electric GE – has a new vice chair—and she is the first woman ever to hold that title.
Tuesday morning, the company named Beth Comstock, its chief marketing officer whose ever-expanding oversight includes GE Lighting and GE Ventures, GE vice chair leading Business Innovations.
Comstock, 55, joins three male vice chairs in CEO Jeff Immelt’s suite of key counselors. Though even without the vice-chair title that Daniel Heintzelman, John Rice and Keith Sherin have, Comstock has been, for many years, a constant right-hand advisor to Immelt. “Her passion for change and innovation is critical to our growth strategy,” Immelt said in a statement.
Comstocks’ new title serves as a formal stamp of approval from Immelt and the GE board. And, by its designation—vice chair of Business Innovation—the post signals the company’s new direction. As Fortune’s Geoff Colvin explains in his story, “For GE, Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” in the current issue, Immelt, who has been CEO since 2001, is transforming the 137-year-old company to focus on industrial infrastructure businesses such as power generation, jet engines, locomotives, oil and gas production equipment, and lighting—GE’s original business, started by founder Thomas Edison and now in Comstock’s charge.
Meanwhile, Comstock also oversees GE Ventures, which invests some $200 million a year in a variety of young companies chosen to help GE change and grow. The portfolio includes more than 70 companies in four investing areas: energy , healthcare, software and advanced manufacturing.
This is a pretty big deal, congrats to Beth and to GE. We’ve met with Beth and seen her work across GE’s efforts over the years, we believe she is one of the best marketers of all time. The subtle victory over the last 4+ years was GE aligning themselves with the “maker movement” in a series of campaigns, events, efforts with top agencies. GE was on it and their fingerprints were everywhere makers were. The biggest push happened right after the NYTimes article “G.E.’s Strategies Let It Avoid Taxes Altogether” – it was a bad scene for GE and finding something like the maker movement was needed to get the brand out of being only known by many for not paying taxes and financial services (and getting it back to “invention). Following 2011, there were investments in companies like Quirky (Beth was/is a Director along with Carl Bass of Autodesk) and a series of campaigns around “makers” + GE. Garages (powered by GE) + MakerBot to earlier (2011) campaigns. GE even (for awhile) gave away their patents to Quirky’s inventors.
This is all a company wide cultural shift on how GE is presented, just to be clear, they’re a huge company moving faster than everyone else in marketing – GE is completely on top of things and gets the best agencies to work with, back in March (before smaller, more nimble companies were even thinking about using Periscope for live video streaming) GE was periscoping’ with Bill Nye and Neil DeGrass Tyson. Wherever things are happening, from Internet of Things, to 3D printing, expect to see GE there is some way. What’s next? Right now it looks like GE is trying out the waters with a crowdsourcing model with firstbuild. What else? Keep an eye on GE Ventures to see where they’re placing their bets.