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Johnston Exits GE; Campbell Gets Top Spot

LOUISVILLE, KY. — In a surprise move, GE Appliances president/CEO Larry Johnston left the company last week to assume the top slot at Albertson’s, the nation’s second-largest supermarket and drugstore chain.

He was succeeded by Jim Campbell, a career executive with GE’s majap unit, who most recently held the No. 2 spot there as VP/general manager of sales and marketing. Campbell, in turn, was succeeded by GE Appliances veteran Lynn Pendergrass, who most recently served as general manager of refrigeration.

Johnston was a long-time player within the white goods business, with roots that traced back to a family dealership. He joined GE’s majap unit in 1972, left in 1997 to head the company’s European medical systems group, and returned as appliance president in December 1999.

Johnston’s tenure as chief executive was marked by GE’s controversial partnerships with The Home Depot and Wal-Mart, aggressive pricing in pursuit of market share and increased pressure on sales and earnings. Indeed, revenue dropped 5 percent and earnings fell 3 percent during the first quarter of 2001, which, together with Johnston’s departure, added to speculation that GE might jettison its smallest division, which contributed less than 6 percent of corporate profits last year.

But both Johnston and GE reconfirmed the company’s commitment to the category in statements following the Albertson’s announcement, and retailers regarded his switch simply as a good career opportunity.

“He’s in the prime of his life and he realized that the opportunity to run a major company wouldn’t happen at GE,” observed Bill Trawick, executive director of the NATM buying group.

“It gives him the opportunity to run a company top down,” agreed Bob Lawrence, executive director of Associated Volume Buyers. Retailers were pleased with GE’s choice of Campbell as Johnston’s successor, and expect a similar strategy, if different management style, from the new New York-bred president. Said Tina Settecase, VP/general manager for Sears’ appliance business, “Jim worked directly for Larry, so I would expect it to be business as usual, although that’s pure speculation on my part. “

Trawick noted that Campbell “helped a lot of NATM members get refocused on GE after it opened up distribution to Home Depot and Wal-Mart. He was the first vice president at GE who truly spent most of his time with customers, asking what their problems were and how GE could help.”