Some people replace lightbulbs and others insulate their attics. But for Elyse Allan, energy efficiency is a much, much bigger deal. As president and CEO of GE Canada, Allan is focusing a lot of her attention on ecomagination, General Electric's global initiative to develop new, resource-efficient and environmentally friendly technologies.
"It's about being creative in leveraging what we already have at GE and in filling the product spaces we've missed between our businesses," she says. "This is a commitment to work with our customers to solve their most pressing environmental issues." In the next five years, she explains, GE will double its R&D investment in developing cleaner, more efficient technologies and will push the envelope in areas such as wind power, fuel cells, water-purification systems, hybrid locomotives, and next-generation aircraft engines, among others.
Allan's long association with GE began right after she received her Tuck MBA in 1984. She joined the U.S. company as an internal marketing consultant, which, she says, "drew on many skills I'd been taught at Tuck about communication, negotiation, and management. I learned to deliver tough messages while still being part of the team. And to work with the team on meeting our customers' expectations. It's important not only to generate an idea but to put it into a process. You need the discipline to execute your ideas. Tuck taught me that, and GE lives by it!"
You need the discipline to execute your ideas. Tuck taught me that, and GE lives by it!” Elyse Allan T'84
Moving to GE Canada in 1988, Allan implemented new customer service and go-to-market strategies. But not on her own. "I would never pretend," she says, "to be the expert on any one business. I'd have the people at the table who knew the problem—guys from the shop floor or the warehouse—and give them the opportunity to change how business was done."
Characterizing herself as "a person who likes to create new options for myself," Allan had a great chance to demonstrate that in 1995, when GE proposed new opportunities that would bring her back to the U.S. For family reasons, she opted to stay in Canada, where she subsequently accepted the presidency of the Toronto Board of Trade. (She is married to Donald G. Allan T'84, vice president of corporate development at Agnico-Eagle Mines Limited, a gold-mining company and developer of gold mines in Canada, Finland, and Mexico.)
"I found the Board of Trade much more interesting than I expected," she says with a laugh. "The public-policy issues were particularly challenging." Her greatest success there changed the way municipalities like Toronto are financed. A bold grassroots campaign—involving websites, petitions, and the media—generated public-policy debates and resulted in a planned redistribution of gas-tax revenues between federal, provincial, and municipal governments.
She credits her work with the Board of Trade with giving her a better understanding of how the business sector in Canada works and how it can work to improve society. That, in turn, has influenced her goals for GE Canada since she returned as president and CEO in 2004. Allan wants her 9,500 employees to feel connected to Canada, and she feels that ecomagination could help. "Canada, as a people and a culture, has always had a great respect for the beauty of its country," she says. "As a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol, Canada wants to be a leader in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide. But we're still a huge user of energy per capita. GE has exciting, technology-based solutions that reduce energy consumption." But more, she acknowledges, is still needed. Says Allan, "We have to push the envelope. How can we apply this, tweak that, to address a problem the customer will be dealing with tomorrow?"