The connector

Elyse Allan is a leader outside the mould. Her consensus-building and communication skills have been effective in moving GE Canada into new ventures and into the future.

The massive transformation underway at General Electric is apparent as soon as one walks into its offices at Front Street and University Avenue in downtown Toronto. A lone receptionist is the only visible human and it’s obvious that the employees who once worked for the commercial real estate arm of GE Capital have cleared out, leaving behind a vast area of empty offices. A visitor has her choice of seats in the spacious boardroom.

At first this seems like an odd venue to discuss the future of GE Canada. But as soon as CEO Elyse Allan hurries in and takes a seat, the place feels full of possibility.

“You don’t have to worry about that,” she says, waving away a list of prepared questions. “Just ask me about what you want to talk about.”

Yes, the parent company is in the process of selling off the assets of GE Capital, which means fewer jobs in Canada. But as the company restructures to focus more on its industrial products, it will add jobs here through the acquisition of the power and grid assets of the French company Alstom Holdings SA. GE will also be moving some engine production from the US to a new facility in Canada, adding jobs. So, overall, GE Canada will employ about 8,000 people, almost 1,500 more than before the restructuring began. The company will also continue to provide financing linked to some of its product lines.

“It’s a loss to the company,” Allan says of the capital operations, which had been good moneymakers in Canada. And she doesn’t gloss over the unfortunate fact that some “really good people” have lost their jobs.

But she’s eager to talk about what’s coming next. And there’s no surprise there. After all, GE did not become one of the world’s largest conglomerates by living in the past. Started in 1892 in Schenectady, NY, it is a textbook case of corporate survival — it was one of the first 12 companies to comprise the Dow Jones Industrial Average and is still on the index.

Through it all, the Canadian unit, launched in Peterborough, Ont., at the same time as the parent company was founded, has played a key role. And Allan assures that will continue to be the case going forward.

INTELLIGENT INFRASTRUCTURE

GE Co. — already a global powerhouse — aims to be the largest and most value-added infrastructure company in the world. “If you look across our businesses, you’ve got power generation, distribution of energy, healthcare and aviation… you’ve got oil and gas and transportation. And then there’s lighting, which is also becoming very high tech,” she says. “We’re looking at how we can help our customers to achieve the outcomes they need with technological innovation that will help them optimize their production, to deliver lower costs, more efficiency and cleaner outputs.”

The focus now is on the Industrial Internet, a phrase popularized by Jeffrey Immelt, GE Co.’s high-profile CEO. The goal is to create smart machines that will be able to capture vast amounts of data with embedded sensors and software, “talk” to each other, make sense of the data with advanced analytical tools and communicate findings throughout far-flung systems.

“Our equipment has had software in it, but never in the way that we’re doing it now,” Allan says. She explains that using the Industrial Internet to connect machines and to mine and process the data they collect will help all sorts of systems be better managed. She uses the oil and gas sector as an example, describing an intelligent pipeline using sensors and fibre optics to provide system-wide data that will help to predict problem areas before leaks occur. “It would create an integrated dashboard that would let you, as a manager, see the whole system.”

Another example is in aviation, where intelligent engines are being developed to capture data that will help anticipate where and when maintenance might be needed, meaning fewer delays on the tarmac.

Intelligent lighting is also on the horizon, lighting that could be used to provide security systems for banks, patient location systems for hospitals or crowd control for entertainment venues. This could be done with sensors embedded in LED lights that can read the environment in which they are located. And more advanced manufacturing is also part of GE’s vision. Several years ago GE launched a robotics research centre in Bromont, Que., where it makes components for aircraft engines. “What’s cool about it is that not one person lost their job,” Allan says. “We’ve had tremendous productivity gains. Now these guys are designing robots for our plants all over the world.”

A CONTEMPORARY LEADER

Allan was appointed president and CEO of GE Canada in 2004, after working for the company off and on in various capacities between 1984 and 1992. In between she worked for Ontario Hydro and helmed the Toronto Board of Trade. Raised in Baldwin, NY, she earned a BA from New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, where she focused on biology and environmental science, and an MBA from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business.

Her academic pursuits might make her seem an unlikely candidate to lead a division of a giant conglomerate built on engineering prowess. But being well rounded and able to communicate is often what makes a leader effective when it comes to representing a tech-based company to the world outside its walls. And this is a skill at which Allan is said to excel.

Curious, inspiring, visionary, confident, driven. These are some of the adjectives used to describe her.

“She is a very contemporary leader,” says Simon Olivier, who has known Allan for 10 years and has reported to her for the past three as executive vice-president of growth and strategy. By a contemporary style, he means an alternative to the command-and-control, top-down model that may have served corporations well at one time, but is being replaced by a more inclusive approach that encourages participation and engagement, not just blind obedience.

“What I really like about Elyse is that she is able to connect with people in a very genuine fashion,” says Olivier, who credits her with helping him develop the skills he has needed to rise through the ranks. “She understands what matters to people. She leads in an inspiring and empowering way through how she delegates and asks for things to be done.”

Asked if she has a tough side, Olivier says he prefers to use the word “decisive.”

“She can make up her mind quite rapidly and once she decides something she acts on it,” he says. “She’s got a lot of trust in herself and her capabilities and a lot of trust in others, which gives her the comfort level to be bold. She’s also got this capability to connect the dots at the macro level and she sees things that maybe others don’t see.”

Case in point is Calgary’s GE Customer Innovation Centre, designed to bring expertise and analytical tools from around the globe to tackle challenges in the oil and gas sector, as well as power and water. Opened in 2012, it has become a success story.

“It was a challenge to get the whole idea to take off,” Olivier says. “But Elyse was really bold in her approach because she felt it was the right thing to do for customers. Were it not for Elyse, that centre would not exist today.”

For Allan, connecting the dots means spending a lot of time out of the office, investigating new technologies and building bridges with other decision-makers who are equally focused on fostering Canadian competitiveness.

“It’s about making sure you are collaborating across the divides,” she says, whether it’s with government, other businesses, academics or environmentalists.

A WOMAN OF MANY BOARDS

Allan serves on the boards of many organizations, including the C.D. Howe Institute, the Conference Board of Canada and MaRS Discovery District. She recently completed board terms for The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, where she served as chair, and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE).

John Manley, head of the CCCE and former deputy prime minister of Canada, said Allan was tapped for key roles in his organization not only because of her high-profile position at GE, but also because of her experience running the Toronto Board of Trade.

“She’s comfortable navigating within a large, complex corporate organization and also talking the language of the public,” he says. “She’s very effective as a communicator.”

Allan is currently a leader of a CCCE initiative that brings together various groups seeking to ensure that Canadians have the job skills necessary to compete in the 21st century. One of her roles is to share insights from GE, which is world-renowned for its commitment to employee development. Another is to help find ways to define and measure investments in education and training.

“She’s very personally engaged in the topic,” Manley says, adding that she is a particularly effective panel moderator. “She uses her skills to engage our members, to animate the conversation.”

William Robson, president and CEO of the C.D. Howe Institute, has also seen her in action. As the chair of the institute’s Energy Policy Council, Allan is particularly good, he says, at juggling diverse agendas and focusing the discussion.

“The Energy Policy Council members have a variety of backgrounds and all sorts of different day jobs and one of the things that is very positive about having Elyse as the chair is that she’s a great conductor of meetings where you’ve got people coming at things from different points of view,” he says. She’s able to keep strong personalities on track, he adds, and to understand “where the lines are” when it comes to the institute’s role in influencing public policy.

Allan is also said to be skilled at understanding how to apply resources so that they can be most effective. She calls it “cutting through the noise and getting down to what matters.”

INNOVATION HAPPENS ON THE FRINGE

While all this activity makes for a very busy work schedule, Allan makes sure to carve out recreational time with her husband, Don, and grown son, Stuart. She likes to hike and ski, and she also golfs, “though not very well,” she admits. Fiction with historical or geopolitical themes is her reading choice.

But she also says she very much enjoys her work.

“I came from a family that worked,” she says of her family, which built and ran vacation rentals in a resort town in New Jersey. “We worked a lot, but we had fun doing it because we were all doing it together.” When she wasn’t changing sheets or cleaning rooms for the family business, she worked as a waitress to help put herself through school. So working hard comes naturally, as does her penchant for teamwork and collaboration.

A love of travel and a willingness to venture out of her safe zone and look beyond the obvious also serve her well in her current role. “You have to reach out and build those networks because innovation happens on the fringe,” she says. “So you’ve got to be out there on the fringe to see what’s coming.”

Throughout the world, for example, innovators who aren’t necessarily familiar with the oilsands are making technological breakthroughs that have the potential to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Alberta. To find them, GE is working with Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance to hold contests to award those with the best ideas. Being a leader in this effort has given Allan a chance to see cutting-edge technology being developed around the globe.

The contest is why the employees of Guha Industries of Tamil Nadu, India, a maker of refrigeration and heating equipment, are working to collaborate with GE Canada on an ammonia/water heat pump to allow low-grade heat to be used in steam production and power generation, reducing fossil-fuel use.

These people had never been to Alberta, Allan says, and had no experience with heavy oil, but they were working on something that could be applied by GE Canada.

“There are a lot of people out there working on stuff relevant to us, but if you don’t reach out, how do you know?” she says, switching seamlessly between the technical and the vernacular: “It’s really cool.”

This type of project — one that searches the world in the spirit of collaboration to find solutions to pressing problems — is something that Allan relishes and that makes good use of her innate curiosity, desire to expand her boundaries and highly developed communication skills.

She likes to take advantage of GE’s Leadership Explorations program, which sets up experiences that put people into places and situations they might not be used to.

“I go and I learn,” Allan says. “I keep myself in uncomfortable places.”

This attitude has served her well and is precisely what GE needs to keep moving beyond its venerable past into the ever-changing future.

About the Author

Susan Smith


Susan Smith is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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