Much refrigerated: CEO's exit fills GE colleagues with warm wishes

By Joann S. Lublin, Ted Mann and Thomas Gryta Business Leaders Dow Jones Newswires

(REUTERS)

Chief Executive Jeff Immelt will give up control of General Electric Co. later this year. His colleagues were relieved to learn that he will also relinquish command of the office thermostat. 

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Mr. Immelt, who said this week he will end his 16-year captaincy of the conglomerate, is famous for preferring refrigerator-like temperatures in GE offices and meeting rooms. "He keeps it very cold," one person who has regularly endured the chill says. "It's part of the Immelt lore." 

As head of one of the world's biggest companies, Mr. Immelt dines with heads of state and jets around the globe to seal multibillion-dollar deals. He also gets to mess with the air conditioning, often asking for a setting that feels like the low 60s. Some colleagues feel so chilled that they wrap themselves in a scarf or shawl to attend a meeting with the GE leader. 

"In the middle of summer, half the room would have a fleece vest on," says an adviser who has worked closely with GE executives. 

Why the cold treatment? Maybe the 6-foot-4-inch former Dartmouth football player doesn't like to sweat. Some say the veteran manager thinks it helps people pay attention. Mr. Immelt wasn't immediately available for comment. 

Turns out the 61-year-old executive has had arctic preferences since he was just a boy growing up in Ohio. 

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"We did not have air-conditioning when Jeff was little," said his older brother Stephen, who is CEO of international law firm Hogan Lovells. "When we finally got AC it made such a difference for a muggy Cincinnati summer that I think Jeff decided that cold was for him." 

Stephen also has a preference for the colder temperatures, "but I live with someone who does not and life is all about compromises." 

The GE boss seems to hesitate on moving the thermostat in any direction but down, according to people who have worked with him for years. GE's 333,000 workers will have to wait until August to learn whether his successor, John Flannery, has similar preferences. Mr. Flannery wasn't immediately available for comment. 

Earlier this month, Mr. Immelt tweeted "Climate change is real." He was referring to global efforts to combat rising temperatures. Folks inside GE might be forgiven for thinking their boss was simply reiterating his longstanding position on air conditioning. 

Mr. Immelt often gets teased about his predilection for cold meeting rooms by GE associates. They recognize this habit as "a Jeffism" -- along with his tendency to start meetings several minutes early if every participant is present. 

"Let's get going," the early-starter CEO typically declares -- even if everyone hasn't gotten a cup of hot coffee yet, according to a person who has been in the meetings. 

Mr. Immelt will nudge the thermostat up a bit "once in a while" when attendees complain about their frosty surroundings, this person says. "People would say, 'It's f -- ing cold,'" and Mr. Immelt would laugh as he replied, 'I know, I know,'" this person recalls. 

The executive isn't doing it to drum up business. GE doesn't sell air-conditioners anymore -- it sold its GE Appliances business in January 2016 to a Chinese company as part of Mr. Immelt's strategy to refocus on industrial machinery. 

This year, the company hosted its annual shareholder meeting at a factory in Asheville, N.C., where it produces jet-engine parts. One investor who stood up to lodge a protest wasn't upset about sagging profits. "Jeff, I just want to tell you one thing. I come from Florida, and why don't you put some heat on in the building? I'm freezing my rear end off back here." 

One former GE executive says the cold never bothered him, but he contends that is probably because "I have a lot of body fat." 

Mr. Immelt believes "that if the room is too warm, it makes people sleepy," the former executive says. 

While people tend to think warm rooms make them sleepy, some research shows the opposite is true. Keeping a meeting room too cool hurts attentiveness, according to an ergonomics expert. 

"When you start to feel cold, you feel distracted," says Alan Hedge, director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University. "You're not focusing on what people are saying." 

Distracted behavior typically happens in rooms cooler than 68 degrees, he says. Employees make fewer errors and complete more computer tasks with office temperature set between 76 and 78 degrees, Prof. Hedge concluded, based on several studies he has conducted since 2004. A room must be pretty warm "to get people falling asleep in meetings -- unless it's super, super boring," Prof. Hedge says. 

Unfortunately, he adds, Cornell doesn't let faculty members change thermostats in their classrooms. The rooms are usually set to 72 degrees in the winter and to 74 degrees in summer to follow guidelines set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers. 

For many years, Mr. Immelt hosted GE's annual meeting for financial analysts on the set of "Saturday Night Live," in 30 Rockefeller Center at the company's former Manhattan headquarters. The soundstage features robust air conditioning in part to offset heat given off by TV lights. 

The company continued to use the studio for several years after it sold its interest in NBC and the frigid temperature at the analysts' meeting was an open secret among regular attendees, who spoke of dressing warmly to prepare for the hour-plus event. 

People at cold Immelt meetings "laugh about it" but hardly ever register complaints, according to another person familiar with the situation. "Jeff does not spend a lot of time worrying where the thermostat is," this person says. "It's not that cold." 

But some do speak up. At a GE analyst meeting in the SNL soundstage in December 2013, an analyst questioned whether the building's new owner was paying its heating bill, according to a transcript of the event. "I ask for this, this cool, this refrigerator treatment here," Mr. Immelt responded. 

"I wonder if we can cut this short," the analyst joked. "So we can all get out of here and go warm up outside." 

The high temperature that day in Manhattan was 37 degrees. 

Write to Joann S. Lublin at joann.lublin@wsj.com, Ted Mann at ted.mann@wsj.com and Thomas Gryta at thomas.gryta@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires 

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