David Calhoun: A great source of energy by Amy Boyce M.A. '97

Self-confidence. Forward-looking leadership. Life-long learning. That's what David Calhoun (accounting '79) spoke about to Virginia Tech's newest graduates in May. These phrases also aptly describe Calhoun, the new vice chairman of infrastructure for the General Electric Company. His record of success has been possible because of the education he received--both at Virginia Tech and at General Electric (GE).

Calhoun is not the first member of his family to attend Virginia Tech. His great-uncle, William Slater Cowart, graduated in 1910 with a degree in civil engineering, and several other family members also attended Tech. "I was steered to Virginia Tech very early on by my mother," says Calhoun. "She brought the whole family to the house to make sure I was going there."

Calhoun remembers his time at Virginia Tech as a blend of academic and social pursuits. He was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and was active in intramural athletics. "I loved it," says Calhoun. He was inspired by several of his accounting professors, including Wayne Leininger, whose class in cost accounting ultimately had a direct impact on Calhoun’s career choice.

Upon graduating from Tech, Calhoun joined GE. Amazingly, a decision with such far-reaching implications was based on a simple geographical preference. His other option was Westinghouse, a company similar to GE in size and characteristics. But the Westinghouse job would have taken him to western Pennsylvania and the GE job took him to eastern Pennsylvania, which he preferred.

Calhoun completed the GE Financial Management Program and in 1981 joined the GE corporate audit staff. His successes have been many, but even he couldn't have imagined where that first job would take him. "At the time, I couldn’t see past the end of my nose. I could never have imagined myself as vice chairman of General Electric." He took advantage of the opportunities that came his way and was blessed with mentors who steered him in the right direction.

David Calhoun

Calhoun speaking at Virginia Tech's
133rd commencement ceremony.
Calhoun's position within the corporate audit staff was a training ground and a massive personal commitment. For five years, he worked 14-hour days, six days a week. He spent a great deal of time traveling and away from his family. But the job gave him the opportunity to meet and work with some of the top people in the company, such as Jack Welch, Larry Bossidy, and Dennis Dammerman. "Left on my own, I would have disintegrated in that environment," he observes. "But the man I worked for upon completion of my time on the audit staff counseled me about the balance between work and family. It would have taken me another decade to figure that out on my own."

That balance is what allows Calhoun to enjoy both his job and his family. Calhoun and his wife, Barbara, have four children--Jessica, Amy, Corey, and Devon. "We're having a blast with them. They are independent and resourceful and they grow up very fast." In his free time, Calhoun still takes pleasure in the pursuits he enjoyed while at Virginia Tech, running daily and playing golf and basketball with friends. Skiing is another favorite activity and, he says, "It makes for great family vacations."

When asked about his role at GE, Calhoun says, "My job is to articulate the company's vision and communicate where we want to go. And I never get tired of talking about it. It's a great source of energy." In addition to communicating GE's vision, Calhoun talks to industry leaders around the world and reviews processes that may need changing. "No one needs me for the normal course of business. The role of leaders is to inspire change."

It's not an easy role, but challenges, notes Calhoun, are a part of life. "Difficult situations bring real purpose and resolve to decision-making." At GE, one challenge can be meeting operating commitments--doing so is important, but often, factors beyond anyone's control can arise. In his first CEO job with the company--GE Rail--Calhoun faced revenues that were 60 percent below those from the previous year because of an uncertain economy. Calhoun was counseled by Jack Welch, the celebrated former chairman and chief executive of GE. "Jack understood market circumstances and suggested alternative strategies that really helped. Throughout my career with GE, the company has always been there to support me. We're all on the same team. It's one of the things I like best about GE."

Life at GE is satisfying in other ways, too. The company provides a wealth of opportunities to continue learning--not just for its leaders, but for everyone who works there. "The idea of life-long learning was drilled into me from the time I first arrived at GE. Learning is the only way to survive in such a diverse company." At GE, there is always an opportunity to do new things, to face and meet new challenges. "I really love the company I work for."

Being invited to speak at Virginia Tech's 133rd commencement ceremony "was the biggest professional and personal honor I've ever had. It's pretty flattering that they think the kids need me," observes Calhoun. When composing his speech, Calhoun admits that he kept in mind the things he wished someone had told him when he was that age.

Much of what Calhoun shared with Virginia Tech graduates is also good advice for the entire Tech community: Keep marching forward. Don't be afraid to set ambitious goals. Those are the goals that will keep you reaching, keep you moving. Be interdisciplinary. Interdisciplinary skills differentiate the leaders from the individual contributor. Embrace diversity. That's what companies like GE need and it's what universities like Virginia Tech need.

"I really do draw energy from Virginia Tech," Calhoun says. "Anytime I talk to local Hokies or alumni friends, I am impressed with their enthusiasm for the university. It's an absolute sense of pride that you don't get many other places. That kind of esprit de corps is inspiring."

To read Calhoun's commencement address, go to http://www.unirel.vt.edu/news/commencement05.html.

Amy Boyce is special projects editor for the Office of University Development.