GE exec turns boyhood lessons into career advice

Walter Robb and his wife, Anne, are shown during a ceremony in May held by the Schenectady Foundation honoring them for their contributions to the community. Photo providedWalter Robb and his wife, Anne, are shown during a ceremony in May held by the Schenectady Foundation honoring them for their contributions to the community. Photo provided
Walter Robb and his wife, Anne, are shown during a ceremony in May held by the Schenectady Foundation honoring them for their contributions to the community. Photo provided

Walter Robb and his wife, Anne, are shown during a ceremony in May held by the Schenectady Foundation honoring them for their contributions to the community. Photo provided

By REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — It all started with a tap-dancing trumpet player and a pitcher of lemonade.

That’s where former GE executive Walter Robb’s new book, “Taking Risks,” begins, and it’s where his long career of bold decisions started, too.

As a kid, Robb got a 15-cent allowance. He had to give some to the collection at church and some to his savings, and what was left didn’t feel like much.

So he and a friend made a plan. They’d seen girls on their street selling lemonade by the roadside and decided to give it a try. The problem: they lived near the competition and weren’t sure how they would attract customers. So they sweetened the deal: every time someone bought a cup of lemonade, Robb’s friend would perform a tap dance while playing his trumpet.

They sold out of lemonade.

Following suit

Many years later, as head of GE Medical Systems and director of global research, he repeated the pattern of improving a product in a way others didn’t think was possible. With his encouragement, his engineering team designed an MRI machine that took just five seconds to do a scan.

They resisted at first. Thirteen other companies had already broken into the MRI market, each with machines that required two minutes to return a picture of the inside of the human body, and many did not believe a faster machine was possible.

“My own team wanted to make a two-minute scanner,” Robb said. “I took a risk to convince them we would just be the fourteenth company.”

Less than a decade later, GE had captured half the global MRI market.

Potential lesson

This is the lesson Robb hopes readers will take away from his new book.

“I saw in looking back that my biggest successes were not when I tried for incremental gain, but where I took a risk on a major step,” he said.

Robb, who has lived on Ruffner Road in Niskayuna for 28 years, spent two years writing the book. He mostly dictated it to his office manager, a longtime colleague whom he met while working for GE in Milwaukee. “It was so much fun,” he said.

They worked from an outline, and Robb wrote some complicated sections out longhand, but for the most part, they collaborated. The result was a collection of anecdotes meant to convey his singular message: Take calculated risks.

“So many business books are written that have ten chapters on ten different subjects. By the time you’ve finished, you can’t even remember what the first five were,” he said. “So I said, ‘I’m keeping it simple. It’s one thrust.’

“This book can be handed down to your children at any stage in their education, right up through grad school, or to someone going to their first job, or their first promotion,” he added.

Its proceeds will be donated to charity, although he doesn’t expect to make much money from the self-published title.

Robb was inspired to write the book because he believes companies have become risk-averse. The problem, he thinks, is a workplace pace that leaves people creatively drained and low on energy.

“In the past 20 years since I’ve retired, on speaking to people in business at all levels, I find that people are working harder, longer hours, and to very strict schedules,” he said. “They don’t have time to think about breaking out of the box or suggesting wild ideas.”

Local concern

Specifically, he has concerns about the risk-taking, or lack thereof, in the Capital Region.

Entrepreneurs, who can be counted on to take leaps of faith to promote their business ideas, have trouble finding the capital they need. Many successful professionals, retired or at the end of their careers, leave the area in search of Florida sun. (Robb doesn’t see why. “This is the most wonderful four seasons,” he said.)

At the other end of the professional spectrum, graduates of local schools like UAlbany and RPI take off because they can’t find jobs here. “They have to leave to find opportunities,” Robb said. “The solution is, hopefully, we will get a viable electrical industry that is hiring.

“To some extent, we are,” he added, noting that semiconductor fabrication company GlobalFoundries has established a growing presence in Malta.

But in order for a powerful culture of innovation to flourish here, the companies that choose the Capital Region will need risk takers at the helm, Robb says.

He’s hopeful that the communities of Schenectady, Albany, Troy, Saratoga and other lively local areas will attract and retain young people, who will make their careers here and raise their families, as he has.

Robb has three sons and four granddaughters, and “they’re all risk-takers,” he said proudly. With any luck, they’re in good company.

Walter Robb’s book “Taking Risks,” published by Meadow Brook Farm Publishing, can be purchased at amazon.com.

About the Author

Rebecca Isenhart
Rebecca Isenhart is the reporter/writer for Your Niskayuna, presented by the Daily Gazette of Schenectady.