Don’t even think about planning to emulate Beth Comstock’s high-flying career. She was appointed vice chair at industrial behemoth General Electric in August, the first woman ever in such a post. No one could have plotted the crazy-quilt path that had Comstock pinging from Girl Scouts and cheerleading in the Shenandoah Valley town of Winchester, Virginia, to biology in college before journalism, public relations, marketing and now to the near pinnacle of this icon of Western industrial power. “I was involved in pretty much anything you could get involved in,” she says of earlier school days. Well, nothing’s changed much.
And that may be her secret. Now that she’s no longer the company’s chief marketing officer, Comstock’s in charge of business innovations, a broad umbrella that includes software commercialization, corporate marketing, sales and communication, not to mention GE lighting — and its $3 billion in annual sales. It’s all part of her realization that there’s a new chapter for marketing, and new tools for marketing, which are fundamentally about connecting disparate data and operations and people, and they have invaded practically everything. In Comstock’s case, it creates a spread that has seemingly no limits in a company whose products range from gas turbines and lightbulbs to locomotives. “She laid the groundwork for the rebirth of GE,” says Nicholas Heymann, analyst at asset manager William Blair.
We caught up with Comstock, 55, at the side of a venture capital conference sponsored by Intel Capital, just before she mounted the stage for a grilling before hundreds of attendees. It’s the sort of thing that conveys a semi-guru status, and, boy, she talks the talk — and fast. You know, “More ideas, faster, kill them faster, grow them faster.” More Silicon Valley than GE. Wearing dark gray trousers and a dark gray sleeveless blouse and dark heeled shoes, set off against her dark brown hair … well, you get the picture. She’s dressed for business in a no-nonsense way, serious but approachable, and she jokes easily about herself. She talks with intensity as though she has nothing to hide, though she did make her mark first in public relations and marketing, where tailoring the truth is part of the gig.
She’s morphed into the person who’s digitizing GE businesses.
—Nicholas Heymann, William Blair analyst
So is storytelling. She showed up to our meeting lugging what looked like a miniature gas steam turbine, maybe 18 inches long, and I nearly dropped it when she handed it over, not expecting it to weigh 20 pounds or so. Turns out it was a miniaturized gas turbine, the sort of thing normally occupying a room the size of a gym. “Honey, I shrunk my thing,” she says. “They printed it in two days,” on a metal printer. But it’s more than a prop. Turns out it’s also useful for a new desalinization process. For Comstock, it illustrates the new GE: a plunge into digital industry, marrying disparate technologies, finding novel applications for in-house knowledge, reaching out to new markets.
She came to GE in 1986, when GE acquired NBC, where Comstock worked in public relations, promoting the likes of Tim Russert, Tom Brokaw and, yes, Brian Williams, back in his first MSNBC days. GE sold NBC almost three years ago. Comstock had long since become GE’s chief marketing officer. But it wasn’t until a year ago that she was actually given responsibility to run a business: GE lighting. Now she also oversees the venture-capital arm GE Ventures, which invests up to $200 million a year, and her most recent pet project, Current, has squashed together industrial LED lighting, solar and electricity storage under one roof. “She’s morphed into the person who’s digitizing GE businesses,” says Heymann.
It hasn’t always worked out. One of her favorites was a company called Quirky, a crowd-sourced invention startup whose board she joined after GE invested $30 million; it recently filed for bankruptcy protection. “The message I try to say in our company is you have to take bets on things like this. Every day I fail at something,” she says, though the “cringe-worthy” ones — she lets out a loud groan to illustrate — still hurt, because they involved people she might not have managed well and let go of too quickly. “You can’t beat yourself up,” she says, even though it seems like she does.
For all that, she says, she’s an introvert and has gained encouragement from the book Quiet, by Susan Cain. “It’s something I’ve had to work at,” and she says it has sometimes cost her, such as when she’s failed to get out to meet someone and maybe lost a deal. Her two daughters are grown up, and she travels a lot. She’s also president of the Cooper Hewitt design museum and says her interests in art have evolved from mid-century modern to contemporary. (Current favorites: Marcel Dzama and Raymond Pettibon.) “The real luxury is not having to travel, just to stay home,” in New York, where you might find her curled up reading a long novel. Networking has its limits.
Why you should care
Because her work will touch everything from software to the lighting industry.