Vice chair Beth Comstock has an ungainly portfolio but a simple mission: infusing the future into a venerable company.
Silicon Valley entrepreneur Eric Ries didn’t know what to think when Beth Comstock approached him at a publication party for his book, The Lean Startup, and said she wanted to talk. She was General Electric’s (GE) chief marketing officer back then, in 2011, and thought his ideas might work at GE. “I was super-skeptical,” Ries recalls. “I didn’t know her. If you’d told me the CMO of a big company wanted to talk to me, I’d have rolled my eyes. My expectations were not high.”
At her invitation, he spoke at GE marketing events over the following year. Then she arranged for him to work with a couple of industrial teams to apply the lean-startup principles of creating a bare-bones product, showing it to customers, learning, and adapting. Results were good, so Comstock arranged for Ries to work with more GE units. Such experiments were unorthodox at GE, but Comstock—direct, fast-paced, articulate—has a way of making the ambitious and unorthodox sound logical and matter-of-fact, even obvious. “What I didn’t understand was that this was a series of trials, because she had an agenda for what the company needed to do,” Ries says.
Eventually Comstock had him present his ideas and results at the annual meeting of GE’s top officers. CEO Jeff Immelt was so impressed that he had all of GE’s 5,000 senior managers trained in these concepts in a lightning-fast four months.
Today those ideas that Comstock heard at a book party have become one of GE’s top initiatives, FastWorks. GE credits it with speeding innovation and slashing costs—for example, enabling development of a massive new gas turbine in just 30 months, vs. the usual five to six years.
What authority did Comstock hold to go changing fundamental processes across the company, influencing new products and business models for jet engines, power turbines, MRI scanners, and more? None, exactly. She was the CMO. But to understand her value to GE, why she was promoted to vice chair a year ago, and why she’s No. 48 on Fortune’s newest ranking of the Most Powerful Women in business, the story of FastWorks explains a lot.
“It’s hard for people outside who think in terms of organization charts to appreciate Beth’s role and her impact,” says Susan Peters, GE’s human resources chief. Officially Comstock, 56, is “vice chair, business innovations,” an opaque title. She still oversees marketing, sales, and communications, but she’s also in charge of “building out GE as a service,” a mysterious phrase to outsiders, and she oversees GE Lighting as well as GE Ventures and Licensing, which invests in startups. It’s a sprawling portfolio that is baffling on its face. You have to wonder: What unites these assorted parts?
The answer is also unique—but not baffling. Comstock’s job is to see the future and help GE’s businesses figure out what it means for them. For example, she says, “digital”—shorthand for the power of data and analytics—“we identified a while ago, and that goes back to work I did at NBC. So it’s trend identification. Jeff seeded it on the tech side and the commercial side, and it was up to me to put together the right starter team to bring in a new business model.” New business models based on data and analytics now span all of GE, much as FastWorks does. That’s why the company now calls itself “the digital industrial” in a marketing campaign that Comstock supervises. “The kind of work I do is seeding and incubating ideas, and then they scale and they go,” she says.
The digital idea has scaled vastly. CNN president Jeff Zucker, who has known Comstock since they both worked at NBC 25 years ago, says, “GE clearly sees itself and presents itself as a digital company. With all due respect to Jeff [Immelt], I don’t know that that happens without Beth.” Immelt himself wouldn’t argue. “She has spearheaded our investment in the industrial Internet, driving our evolution to a digital industrial company,” he said when she was named a vice chair last year.
As for that GE-as-a-service idea, understanding Comstock’s role requires piercing another apparent mystery: why the former CMO is running GE Lighting. It’s because lighting, GE’s original product line (the company’s founders include Thomas Edison), wasn’t going to survive without a reimagined business model. LED bulbs’ efficiency, 20-year life span, and falling prices killed the old model, which relied on replacement sales. So Comstock looked across GE and came up with a new model. It combines LEDs, which can be harnessed to sensors, energy load controls, and more, with GE’s businesses in solar power, energy storage, and data analytics. Commercial customers—retailers, hotels, cities—can get cheaper, more eco-friendly lighting plus troves of actionable business information, all packaged as a service. Customers include JPMorgan Chase, Simon Properties (SPG), Hilton Hotels (HLT), and the city of San Diego. The new business, called Current, is based in Boston and has been separated from the rest of the lighting unit in Cleveland, which still makes conventional bulbs as well as LEDs for consumers; both parts report to Comstock. Current expects revenue of $1 billion this year, a mere flicker in a $140 billion company, but its greater importance is to demonstrate how the service model can work for the rest of GE.
Finding new business models is a big reason Comstock also oversees GE Ventures. It backs startups in GE’s industries, helping them through the company’s scale and global contacts while learning from them about innovating. For example, GE and two startups are incubating a drone-based inspection business of potential value to GE’s power, rail, and energy units. The technology here can be exciting, but that’s only part of the payoff. “This is business model R&D,” Comstock says. “Often it isn’t the tech that’s most important; it’s the business model.”
Which leaves one more puzzle. Why does the person in charge of something as deeply operational and strategic as business model innovation also oversee marketing, sales, and communication? Even here there’s logic. Marketing, expansively defined, requires understanding every facet of the market and where it’s going and responding smarter and faster than competitors. That’s the definition Comstock embraced years ago. “You should be as central a part of the process of innovation as product managers and engineers,” she told her team when she was CMO. Not many marketers think that big or could get away with it; it probably helps that the boss, Immelt, was a marketer for his first several years at GE.
For more on Beth Comstock, watch this Fortune video:
It also makes sense that Comstock, helping to shape GE’s transformation, oversees how it’s presented. The company’s recent funny TV ads, in which twentysomethings explain why it’s cool to work for a big, old, industrial company, have certainly earned their cost with the attention they have attracted.
Comstock’s seemingly hodgepodge portfolio thus forms a coherent whole. That helps explain why she’s a vice chair, an exalted position that has been reserved for (male) executives who run or have run giant operations or the finance function. She doesn’t fit the mold, and that’s part of the message that Immelt and the board wanted to send. The company is attempting a massive, once-a-generation transformation, for good reason. GE stock has trounced the market in the past year, but it’s still below where it was when Immelt became CEO 15 years ago. To right itself, the company has almost completely shed GE Capital, and Immelt has made $100 billion of industrial acquisitions. The company is becoming radically more global. It has committed to a digitally based strategy, aiming to be one of the world’s top 10 software companies by 2020. That’s a very tall order.
Comstock is a GE anomaly in temperament. In a company with many big personalities, where a criterion for advancement used to be “filling the room,” she’s a self-described introvert. She claims she has to force herself to meet new people, but she does it, and it has paid off. “She’s the most networked person in the company,” says Susan Peters, citing a key reason Comstock is in demand as a trend spotter. “At our global research center, when we’re determining with them where to put our money, she’s a go-to person,” Peters says. “What’s the zeitgeist? We go to her.”
Comstock skipped the orthodox path to stardom at GE, which typically includes an early stint on the corporate audit staff. Instead she came up through PR at NBC when GE owned it. GE chief Jack Welch asked her to head communications for the whole company in 1998, and Immelt named her CMO in 2003. She pushed each job’s boundaries.
One more anomaly: Comstock serves on an outside corporate board, Nike’s, though that’s normally forbidden to top GE executives. The company made an exception because board service widens her perspective, which is the essence of her job. “I have to put her in the razor-smart category,” says Alan Graf, a Nike (NKE) director since 2002 and FedEx’s longtime CFO. “She’s equally comfortable talking about finance or marketing.”
Comstock’s wide-ranging résumé prompts the obvious question of what’s next. She can’t rise any higher at GE, being just four years younger than Immelt. A recruiter at a top search firm, who requested anonymity, says she’s a “superstar” who would be “on many more boards if GE allowed it.” Another veteran recruiter adds, “She could go do something elsewhere but probably won’t. Those who leave the vice chair position at GE tend to leave earlier.” But Graf says, “I won’t be surprised to see Beth as a CEO somewhere. She’s obviously capable of that. I guarantee you she’s on some lists.”
Of course, Comstock doesn’t say much about it. She told the Fortune Unfiltered podcast, “I think there will also be a time to say I’ve got to stop and figure out what’s next. A part of me would like to just study for a year. I’d like to have a gap year and sort of get myself together.” Who wouldn’t?
Until then she’ll likely continue as an instigator and integrator, as she has long described it, futurist and connector. How it’ll all work out remains uncertain; Wall Street finally believes in GE’s transformation, but there’s a long way to go. For now it’s fair to say that more companies will need to transform themselves and could use someone in Comstock’s role. “When I tell other executives the FastWorks story, it really shocks them,” says Eric Ries. “They say it wouldn’t work for them. A lot of executives say they don’t have a Beth. No kidding. She’s the company’s secret weapon.” Though less secret by the day.
A version of this article appears in the September 15, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “Lighting Up GE.”