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Sun 9 Nov 2008 04:00 AM

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The house that 'Charlene' built

The CEO of one of GE’s largest units says there’s no better time to sell productivity than in a recession.

Charlene Begley is CEO of one of GE's largest units and one of America's most powerful women. Ever the optimist, she argues that there's no better time to sell productivity than in a recession.

Charlene Begley has had more jobs than she can remember, or at least name without thinking very carefully. But she has only ever been with one company since graduating from the University of Vermont's business school more than twenty years ago.

"For me it was easy," she says. "I wanted to join a company that was going to develop me as a leader and when you do your research, right out of university it's pretty clear that GE is the company to join."

After making it into the multi-conglomerate's prestigious financial management programme, Begley was sent to the industrial city of Erie in the heart of the rust belt.

After making it into the multi-conglomerate's prestigious financial management programme, she was sent to the industrial city of Erie, Pennsylvania, in the heart of the rust belt, the area in northeastern America closely associated with heavy industry and manufacturing.

In the four years that followed, she ended up moving every four months or so, but never got a chance to get bored at work - not even in Erie.

"Within this one company I've had this incredible variety of experiences. I've never actually gotten an opportunity to be bored," she says.

"Every role I have taken has brought new challenges, new adventures. It's just... It's exciting," she says.

But maybe not great for your social life.

"My friends are GE. This company becomes smaller than it looks from the outside," she says. "I've been part of the leadership team since 1994 and so I've gotten to be very close friends with all the leaders within GE."

"Do I have a tonne of friends outside of GE? No, not really. My life is GE and my family."

GE Enterprise Solutions was formed in 2007 and aims to "help customers increase productivity through superior information management and automation solutions".

The unit, which has 17,000 employees and annual turnover of $5bn, comprises four different businesses.Digital Energy addresses the challenges of protecting and optimizing energy infrastructure, such as generators, transmission lines and motors.

Fanuc Intelligent Platforms supplies computer brainpower for embedded solutions, automation and CNC (computer numerical control).

Security focuses on communication and information technologies for security, safety and lifestyle enhancements.

After making it into the multi-conglomerate's prestigious financial management programme, Begley was sent to the industrial city of Erie in the heart of the rust belt.

Sensing and Inspection Technologies business offers advanced measurement, sensor-based and non-destructive testing solutions that deliver productivity and safety for critical processes and applications.

The US may be on the brink of one of its worst ever recessions, and Begley admits that times are tough. She did, after all, announce a hiring freeze within her unit the week before we meet.

"I think the next 18 months will be very tough in the US and Western Europe and as a result we're tightening up on discretionary spending and being very careful about our operating costs," she says.

But five seconds later, and she's back to looking on the bright side of things.

"If you look at my set of businesses, what we sell is productivity. So in tough times it's actually a good time to sell a lot of our products," she says.

On average, GE Enterprise Solutions has a market share in emerging markets of between five and ten percent. "So regardless of the economy there's huge potential just to win share," she adds.

In the Gulf, she sees economic growth easing as a result of the liquidity crisis, but remains upbeat about the company's prospects of weathering the local storm.

"For oil and gas applications we have corrosion monitoring technologies that you can put on your installed base and bring significant productivity," she says.

"So we'll take our corrosion monitors, we'll install them, we'll use our wireless radio devices and we'll feed it to a software platform that enables customers to have better monitoring and make sure they have better preventative maintenance before they have an issue."In July, GE and Abu Dhabi investment agency Mubadala Development announced a framework agreement on a far reaching global partnership encompassing a broad range of initiatives that will include commercial finance, clean energy research, aviation, industry and corporate learning.

Since then, little more has been said about the deal, and Begley is unable to shed more light on it.

"I would defer that to Jeff because that was Jeff's deal and I was not involved in it, but it's still an exciting opportunity for the company," she says. "But I'm not an expert on that deal."

Begley herself never goes to work on the weekend. One journalist took that to mean she never actually works during the weekend, which isn't true.

Begley is in Dubai to talk to her business teams, and to meet with the company's customers in the region.

That includes an increasingly broad range of companies within industries such as aviation and energy.

"I'm here to make sure I know what their priorities are, how they see our products versus our competitors," she says. It's an important process for her.

In April, she told Fortune magazine that the best advice she ever got was from GE chief executive Jeff Immelt, when she was about to become the head of GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms.

He told her to spend "a tonne of time" with her customers.

"At General Electric, people tend to get enamoured with your title, and people want to look good in front of you," she said. "Customers will give you the reality. They don't care about your title, they just want value. You'll never get anything straighter than from a customer."

In 2006, Begley was named one of America's 50 most powerful women in business by Fortune.

Being a woman, she claims, has never been a problem at what is perhaps America's best known blue chip.

GE is the only original member remaining in the 112 year-old Dow Jones Industrial Average index.In her 20 years with the company, having a diverse leadership team has always been a priority for GE.

"The reason is purely selfish. Our view is that customers are diverse, markets are diverse, so diversity will help us win."

"I understand the US may be a little easier than other parts of the world."

But she admits that women face more stress and challenges than men do in trying to balance children with work. Finding the correct balance is not straightforward but neither has it been a major problem.

"There's days when GE wins and there's days when my kids win," she explains.

"If you ask my family, they would say they have benefited from GE. In general, they have traveled to very exciting places, they've experienced more than many of the kids that they go to school with."

Finding new friends and settling into schools hasn't always been easy.

"My kids have moved a lot, and that's been tough, but I don't think they would trade it. And I've always said to my kids that if there's a point when this doesn't work, I'll make a different choice."

Begley's husband, Chris, is an engineer and works from home.

"My husband is a huge, huge help," she says. "He's always there and that enables me to have less stress than many dual career families."

Begley herself never goes into work on the weekend. One journalist took that to mean that she never actually works during the weekend, which isn't true - this is, after all, the company that was once headed by Jack Welch, one of America's most famous workaholics.

"My husband teases me about that article because I do work on the weekends, I just never go to the office," she says.

But surely we wouldn't even be having this conversation if she weren't a woman?

"I do think the questions I get are different than my peers in GE. No one ever asks if they work weekends. Nobody ever asks them about work-family balance. It's different. Do I get tired of it? No, not really. It's what's on people's minds. And the answers are relatively easy."

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