Oral Histories

Joyce Hergenhan

Interview Segments on Topic: Challenges/Accomplishments

Joyce Hergenhan Biography

Joyce Hergenhan began her career as a journalist for Gannet newspapers, was Vice President and Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Consolidated Edison Company, and eventually, in 1982, landed at General Electric as Vice President of Public Relations.  Hergenhan also served as president of the GE Foundation.  As GE’s senior communications executive, she worked closely with then-CEO Jack Welch during the company’s transition from manufacturing to diversified technology and services. She remained at GE for 22 years, retiring in 2004.

Hergenhan’s professional recognitions include the lifetime achievement award in public relations from Women in Communications (1999) and a lifetime achievement award from Inside PR (2000).


Interviewer: Well let’s talk about GE. Talk a little bit about your time. It was 22 years, right.

Hergenhan: Right.

Interviewer: Okay, okay when you started there, Jack was new. You were new. And GE was transitioning from, am I correct to say, a manufacturing company to a service company?

Hergenhan: Technology.

Interviewer: Now, you are in this new position and you have to be aware of this new expanding role of General Electric, what was that like.

Hergenhan: Yeah, there were challenges because to begin with one of the things that was new at GE was Jack. You have to understand Jack. He’s very strong-willed, strong-minded. High energy. Decisive.  And he figures things out. He’s very strategic and very tactful, he’s just very, very smart.  And he saw before anybody, how global the world was getting and how competitive things were. And so we were going to get out of businesses that weren’t big money-making businesses for us and we were going to close down that phase that was inefficient and we were going to manufacture things, maybe in Mexico rather than in California. And so in 1982, GE closed down a steam iron plant in Ontario, California, that and the work was going to be sent out of the country. And that wound up on 60 Minutes because no one had ever done that before. It was the first time a healthy company had shut down a factory just to move the work out of the country. So I said it was such news that it made 60 Minutes. And so the world quickly learned what was happening at GE, but not in the nicest possible way. They were seeing the factories being shut down. Some old-line GE businesses such as house wares, some still think GE makes toaster ovens and irons. They haven’t in 25 years. GE sold the business. God, GE was selling the birthright by selling that business and moving all these jobs, shutting down all these factories, and so it was pretty bad right then. And as a matter of fact, shortly after I joined the company, a cover story in Fortune Magazine was "Toughest Boss in America" and it was Jack, because he was doing this kind of stuff, so that’s kind of where I started. I started with this and so it then became a question of trying to educate not just the media. Our own employees had a very important audience which is your own employees, which you never should forget. So it was our own employees. It was the media. It was Wall Street. It was government agencies, I mean there were a lot of constituents involved here and the most important thing in this is, tell everybody the same thing. I think a lot of times people tell their employees one thing. Tell Wall Street something else. And they want to find out. Not true, especially today. We’ll talk about that later I suspect, and that’s what it’s like today in a 24/7 world. So that was quite a challenge and I just think we did it by a consistent message and also we began to get results. And other companies began to copy GE, which I think gave it credibility. You know it’s tragic for some of these little towns where the only game in town was a GM factory or a GE factory or an IBM factory or something. I mean tragic for these little towns. But for the greater enterprise to survive, and for America to stay competitive, otherwise you’d have a country here with,  buying nothing that was made and sold by a US company. It will all be companies from southeast Asia or Latin America so that was quite an interesting time. You know educate I would say communicating and educating all these audiences about what we were doing and why we were doing it.

Interviewer: What was your best accomplishment. What are you most proud of that you have done in your lifetime? In your professional lifetime, well, it doesn’t have to be your professional lifetime.

Hergenhan: Probably, this may sound wierd, I just think the fact that I made my parents really proud of me. I came from pretty simple circumstances. Neither of my parents went to high school. My mom was a stay at home wife and mother and my dad was a policeman in a small town. And so I just, I worked hard. Obviously, I was lucky that I am reasonably intelligent, but I worked hard at everything I did, whether I was a check out girl at the supermarket when I was in high school or a kid reporter working 80 hours a week. I worked hard. But I think the fact that my father died early, he didn’t see all of my success, but my mother did and I was her little girl and she was just so proud of me.

Interviewer: Sure. Absolutely. Talk again a little bit more about your accomplishments and things you've done in your lifetime that you're proud of.

Hergenhan: Well as far as I said. I feel proudest about is I made my parents so proud but as far as professionally I was trying to think what thing professionally because I’ve been involved with so many and the thing that I think I'm proudest of is that in December following 9/11, I convinced GE to fund the Tower of Light thing down here at the tip of Manhattan, and the idea was conceived by a guy named Kent Barwick, who was then chairman of the Municipal Art Society president of the art society. Kent was a very close friend of mine in Syracuse, and we actually worked together on the daily newspaper at Syracuse, and he was down here as president of municipal art society and I was at that point head of the GE Foundation. And he came up with the idea of the Twin Towers of Light, but they needed a lot of money to do it and quickness and everything else and so I convinced GE to do it. And that, of course, is just enduring picture and I fought. I fight with GE because there were a lot of people who didn’t, thought it was less than the world’s best idea.

Interviewer: Well, thank you.