February 11, 2011, Hispanic Business Magazine
Stephen Barlas, Contributing Writer
Leaning forward on the edge of a couch in a suite at one of Washington's premier hotels, Luis Manuel Ramirez, CEO of GE's Industrial Solutions division, emits energy like one of GE's new WATT electric vehicle chargers. His hands are in perpetual motion, now orchestrating through the air, now reaching out to gently touch the wrist of an interviewer for emphasis. The 44-year-old CEO has a lot to be excited about. Since he took over the $3 billion-a-year division in January 2010, sales of the once-stagnant unit's electrical components have jumped to double-digit growth rates in many of the 100 countries it operates in.
In his first year at the helm, Mr. Ramirez increased research and development spending 15 percent and added 200 engineers, sales and other personnel to a geriatric-appearing division that was created soon after Thomas Edison established the company in the late 1800s. "We went out and rebuilt the global structure by hiring leaders in key growth markets and approving new technology investments and adding resources we needed to grow," Mr. Ramirez explains.
He had plenty of prior international business experience during his 10-year career at GE, including cementing a $1 billion deal with Algeria in November 2008 to manage gas turbines at 13 power plants when he was general manager of GE's contractual services business. However, this is his first CEO position; he is in charge of 15,000 employees and 60 manufacturing facilities around the world.
Nothing about him says he is the top U.S.-based Hispanic executive at GE. He looks like any other member of the corporate elite, dressed in a light blue, pin-striped suit set off against the one-two punch of a bold purple tie against a subtle lilac shirt. Three aides buzz around the suite. But he pays them no mind. He is direct, engaged, plugged into the interviewer. Built compactly as a nine-volt battery, his words flow like electrons from a power source, smoothly, one precisely after another.
It was Mr. Ramirez's multicultural background and executive track recor--not his GQ fashion sense or his silky sentences--that made him a good choice for CEO of Industrial Solutions. The company sells electrical components for traditional markets such as electric- and gas-power producers, transportation and manufacturing plants, and increasingly for "green" markets such as electric vehicles. Sixty percent of its revenue is generated outside North America in countries like India and China.
One would have thought GE would have been attacking the Indian market for many years, given that country's economic growth. Not so. Industrial Solutions had been in India for 30 years; its product line was essentially 30 years old. Mr. Ramirez hired new leaders, revamped manufacturing teams, and expanded the products the division is localizing and introducing in the marketplace. "Our order rate in India has grown 50 percent this year, more than any other division within the GE Energy business segment," he says.
Industrial Solutions is poised for growth in China, too. In December, it broke ground on a Chinese manufacturing facility that is a joint venture with Shanghai Tianling Switchgear Co. The newly engineered, more energy-efficient voltage components produced there give Industrial Solutions a strong entry in the "green" power market, both inside China and outside.
Mr. Ramirez's global sensibility comes naturally. He has traveled widely since he was a teenager, starting to work at age 14 so he could pay for airfare to visit a friend who moved first to the Dominican Republic, then Costa Rica and finally Hawaii. "I went to college thinking I would join the Foreign Service," Mr. Ramirez laughs.
At home, he got heavy doses of Hispanic culture from his father, a Cuban emigre who first fought with Castro and then fled from his dictatorship, and his mother, who was born in Colombia. He has always been proud of his Hispanic heritage. But in the early years of his career it was never what he thought about. Yet, people around and above him saw him as a universal player, someone who could adapt to multiple, global environments.
"I didn't make the connection myself, at first," he admits. He does now.
"When they see my face in the Middle East, they think I am Middle Eastern. In India, they think I am Indian. In Europe, maybe I was born in southern Spain," he explains. "People see that I am not the typical Anglo-American, and they ask me where I am from, it is like an icebreaker."
Connecting With Employees
When he arrived at GE, the company had a Hispanic forum, which had been established in the mid-1990s. It was one of a number of "affinity groups" the company sponsored but was somewhat dormant. Mr. Ramirez started working on some forum committees, stepped up eventually to become co-chair and today is an executive sponsor. "It is a great way for me to get connected with a part of our employee base I wouldn't have been connected with," he acknowledges. "My experience with diversity inside the company is that whenever we have embraced it we get more creativity, and as a result, get more success."
His own latest personal success came 10 years after joining GE from Siemens, the German company which, diplomatically put, moved into new businesses very deliberatively. In GE, Mr. Ramirez saw a company which, once it decided to pursue a new market, moved with lightning speed. He started at GE Energy in 2000 as business development and integration leader for the Energy Management Services division. Then he jumped over to Contractual Services rising to vice president in 2008. In late 2009, Dan Heintzelman, the senior vice president at the energy business segment, offered Mr. Ramirez the CEO's position at Industrial Solutions. He didn't know a lot of the details, except that Industrial Solutions was a stand-alone business, global in reach, a turnaround situation, and a growth business GE wanted to invest in again. "It was right in my sweet spot," he explains. "Part of my brand inside GE is turning around limping businesses, globalizing them and giving them solid footing. I wanted to put my thumb print on it and there are not too many opportunities you get in the corporate world to do that."
Changing the Culture
His mission, he says, is to change the culture at Industrial Solutions from one of a sustainable business to one of a growth business. An important part of that strategy is to promote green business products that are part of GE's new, emerging EcoMagination portfolio, such as the WattStation--which decreases electric-vehicle charging time from 12-18 hours to as little as four to eight hours compared to standard charging. "When economy meets ecology, it is a good thing," he says.
Mr. Ramirez also has worked to improve the local ecology--living conditions as much as the flora and fauna--in Plainville, Conn., where Industrial Solutions is headquartered and where he and his wife, Delia Garced, live. Mr. Ramirez has challenged employees to devote energy to local charities such as the Plainville Community Food Pantry and the Petit Family Foundation. "It is a great way to shape the corporate culture when you have people working together like that," he says.
As he has helped shape employees at Industrial Solutions, so, too, has Hispanic culture helped shape him. But he wouldn't be where he is today without an even broader multicultural sensibility, taking French in high school, learning a little Italian during a college stint in Italy. He speaks fluent Spanish, too, of course. Odds are he is learning some Chinese, too, at this very moment. But in whatever language the Industrial Solutions' CEO speaks on any given day, one thing is certain: 15,000 employees listen.