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Why GE’s Jeff Immelt Is Way Ahead of Bernie Sanders

Jeffrey ImmeltJeffrey Immelt
General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt speaks during an economic development new conference at GE Global Research on Tuesday, July 15, 2014, in Niskayuna, N.Y. Photograph by Mike Groll — AP

While the new graduates at New York University’s Stern business school may have enjoyed Jeff Immelt’s commencement address recently, most of the General Electric CEO’s remarks were surely targeted for other audiences. With a speech clearly crafted for the ears of politicians and investors, Immelt delivered a blunt message: Protectionism is forcing GE to make a “bold pivot,” adding that “companies must navigate the world on their own. We must level the playing field, without government engagement.”

Immelt added GE (GEH) would continue to expand its global footprint by localizing. “In the future, sustainable growth will require a local capability inside a global footprint,” Immelt said. “GE has 420 factories around the world giving us tremendous flexibility. We used to have one site to make locomotives; now we have multiple global sites that give us market access. A localization strategy can’t be shut down by protectionist politics.”

While Immelt claimed that his company was about to embark on a “dramatic transformation,” GE and most American corporations with global scope have been making that shift for a long time now.

When I worked as a young writer at Coca-Cola (KO) in the late 1980s, no other company came close to matching its global reach and penetration. Even so, Coke executives often spoke of being a “multi-local” company, not a “multi-national” company, which was the common label of that day.

“Multi-local” wasn’t just a gratuitous term trotted out in meetings with local gatekeepers in every hamlet across the world. (Though it was used for that, too.) “Multi-local” was actually Coke’s highly pragmatic business model. As it expanded country-by-country, Coke would provide the brands, marketing and soda concentrate, and the local partner would provide most of the capital investment required to build bottling infrastructure: production plants, trucks and sales forces. Consequently, the business grew fast because much of the money stayed in each country.

As China, Eastern Europe and other markets opened up in the 1990s, Coke, G.E. and many other eager U.S. companies structured their investments to meet the requirements of local governments, which often included building local production. Then, as markets everywhere continued to liberalize, the global game basically became an exercise in arbitraging supply chain realities, labor costs, freight implications, tariffs and taxes on a country-by-country basis.

At GE, Immelt has significantly accelerated that approach during his tenure, divesting the company out of a financial services business and doubling down on manufacturing all over the world. He also has led GE’s rise as one of America’s biggest and most dexterous holders of “trapped cash,” as the company carefully manages its finances abroad to avoid being taxed both locally and the U.S.

After all, would those 420 manufacturing sites that Immelt cited exist where they do right now if GE had not already been operating with a multi-local mindset?

In his speech, Immelt summed up GE’s investment strategy in one sound bite: “We are using a manufacturing strategy to open markets.”

So Immelt’s address did not really unveil any actual pivot in the direction of GE’s business strategy, but instead simply confirmed the intensification and acceleration of its existing strategy.

The speech did, however, signal that GE will now talk much more candidly and aggressively about its business strategy.

While never complaining quite as bluntly as, say, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon has criticized banking regulation, Immelt has consistently — but carefully — lamented anti-trade politics for years.

Last year’s debate over the renewal of the Ex-Im bank seemed to raise his irritation level, and he’s clearly become more frustrated in recent months, delivering pointed criticisms in his recent letter to GE shareholders.

But why crank up the heat now, when anti-trade fervor seems to be swelling?

Maybe it’s because Immelt probably feels like GE has little to lose at this point?

A direct attack from Bernie Sanders two months ago accused GE of “destroying the moral fabric of America.” That accusation undoubtedly got under the skin of the famously affable-yet-competitive Immelt, and his pique quickly showed itself in the CEO’s barbed Washington Post op-ed rebuttal.

“I don’t listen to people who have no global context, never been in a factory or don’t want to compete,” he wrote in the Post’s editorial.

The attack from Sanders may have actually been a blessing for GE, forcing Immelt to talk frankly about what his company must actually do to succeed in today’s global political environment.

In fact, he used the Stern forum to deliver an explicit threat.

“We will produce for the U.S. in the U.S., but our exports may decline.” Immelt said. “At the same time, we will localize production in big end-use markets like Saudi Arabia. And countries with effective export banks, like Canada, will be more attractive for investment.”

Three days after the speech, GE announced a $1.4 billion investment in Saudi Arabia, making Immelt’s assertion sound less like a threat and more like a strategic decision that’s already baked into the company’s business plan.

With the edge of a CEO who bought another 67,600 GE shares the day of the speech, he told the students, “Criticism has made me hungrier, tougher, sharper.”

That sounds like a guy who pivoted long before the graduation speech or Sanders’ attack. It also sounds like a guy who has decided that best way to avoid being treated like a political punching bag is to start punching back.

Paul Pendergrass is an independent communications advisor and speechwriter who writes on business, leadership and communication.