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Top GE Lawyer Reflects on 11 Years as General Counsel

Oct. 14, 2015, 2:54 PM

Brackett Denniston, the general counsel of General Electric, recalls the day in the late 1990s when he was offered a job as the top lawyer of Gillette.

At the time, he held the role of GE’s Vice President and Senior Counsel for Litigation and Legal Policy and the Gillette position would have meant a promotion.

“I went to Jack’s office and he was whistling a tune — the job was in Boston — and he was whistling, ‘Goin’ Home.’ ... He was from Boston, too,” Denniston said exactly one day after announcing his retirement from GE.

It marked an ending to a career at the multi-billion dollar global conglomerate that spanned two decades, yet his mind was back to where it all began.

“Jack made it clear that he thought I’d do better staying at GE and was very persuasive,” he said, referring to Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE. “He compared what I could do (at GE) with what I was thinking about with the general counsel’s job — He said, ‘You want to be general counsel for a razor blade company, huh?’”

In an interview on Wednesday morning, Denniston recalled this conversation with Welch — when he couldn’t bring himself to leave — as a signal event that eventually shaped his career: He stayed on at GE, was named general counsel in 2004 and led the legal department for 11 years.

“I have been at it for quite a while,” said Denniston. “It’s something you naturally think about 11 years on the job as general counsel and 19 years altogether — and the Alstom deal was a logical time to announce it.”

“It was nothing more than that,” he added.

Denniston, who is in his late 60s, will retire from GE by the end of 2015, making way for new blood: Alex Dimitrief, a former partner of Kirkland & Ellis, and the former head of litigation at GE who ran both GE Capital and GE Energy at different times, will take over as general counsel on Nov. 1.

When mentioning his departure from GE, Denniston was quick to clarify, “I’ll still be a stockholder,” and stressed that the future of the company looks “extremely bright,” referring to a large investment from activist shareholder Nelson Peltz’s Trian Fund Management, which reportedly accumulated $2.5 billion in GE shares since mid May.

“They had their issues, but they were complimentary of the strategy,” said Denniston. “So we have to execute on that strategy and I’m confident that this management team will do that.”

Denniston noted that GE’s portfolio is radically different now from when he first started with the company: it has made close to $250 billion in divestitures, he said, and the company in recent years has gone through what he called a “simplification” that he said has been healthy.

The announcement of Denniston’s retirement coincided with news that General Electric had sold a $32 billion portfolio of loans and leases to Wells Fargo, in the latest move in the selling of its finance business.

“To clear the arteries of things that have grown up over time and when you go back and look at them, say, they got too complicated... that was a healthy change.”

At the same time, the company in September cleared EU approval after stiff regulatory scrutiny to acquire Alstom’s power business in a $14 billion deal.

After retiring from GE, Denniston said he will pursue teaching and may continue practicing as a lawyer, taking on “interesting” cases. This could include pro bono work, as well as defense and plaintiffs work for corporate clients, he said. Though he wouldn’t say which schools he is considering teaching at, he said that he has “a long association” with Harvard Law School and that “it wouldn’t surprise anybody if I’m talking with them.”

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