GE's Dan Henson Redefines CMO Role

Puts Large Focus on Emerging Markets, Innovation

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Dan Henson started at GE in sales "about as low on the totem pole as you can go, in copier sales," he says. He worked his way up to sales management, and then in 1992, was selected to run a financial services company in Mexico City. In 1995 he relocated to London, where he assumed responsibility for GE's European equipment finance company. The business he was running grew 10-fold in a period of three years, he says, and that success put him on Jack Welch's radar screen.
Dan Henson, CMO of GE
Dan Henson, CMO of GE

The former GE CEO hand-picked Mr. Henson to lead the company's Six Sigma program; he quickly achieved black-belt status. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me, from a career standpoint," he says. In late 1999, he was running three progressively larger financial-services businesses, including Vendor Financial Services, where as president-CEO he grew revenue from $250 million to $700 million. A GE reorganization in the summer of 2005 led to Mr. Henson's being named CMO in January 2006.

Advertising Age: What made you qualified to be CMO?

Dan Henson: My career, with the exception of the Six Sigma role, has all been based on my ability to grow revenue. I doubt I would have gotten the job had I not had a track record of strong growth. We are such an execution organization that if you're going to have a transition, taking someone who has delivered growth to lead the organization that is charged with driving it just makes a lot of sense. Although it'll sound a little odd, I would not be hired as the CMO, most likely, for one of our business units, where you would look for a lot of domain expertise and marketing background. But at the corporate level, connecting the dots and focusing on the leadership element -- I don't need to be what, let's say, the CMO for a rail business needs to be. I'm working at a higher level. I'm responsible for advertising and branding, as well, but [Global Executive Director of Advertising and Branding] Judy Hu reports to me. Where we need to staff positions that need domain expertise, we do.

AA: How are you redefining the role at GE?

Mr. Henson: Beth Comstock had done a great job of starting the marketing function at the corporate level. She was the one who started putting together the training materials and did a great job of getting the ball rolling. My responsibility is to continue to evolve the marketing function and take it to the next level. My focus has been to continue to develop our 7,000 marketing employees throughout the business. So we have revised the curriculum, we have put a huge focus on emerging markets, and also continue to evolve our effort to be innovative in the company.

AA: How are you driving innovation at GE?

Mr. Henson: We're trying to take innovation to a leadership skill level in the company. Traditionally you think innovation is owned solely by the marketing department. We've come to realize that innovation tools need to be married with a business leadership culture that fosters innovation. So we have committed ourselves to teaching our top 50 business teams to set an innovation culture and create an environment that fosters innovation.

AA: How important is marketing talent with global expertise to GE?

Mr. Henson: Expanding globally is a big piece of our agenda. We have half of our revenues outside the U.S. today, which is a great success for the company. We may find that the innovation that's occurring in the developing world may be the de facto standard for the whole world. Building up our international organization has been a huge focus for us, and we've been adding marketing people in great numbers.

AA: What's your biggest challenge?

Mr. Henson: Making sure we have the time to keep a pulse on what other companies are doing. What we need to constantly do is keep an external eye on what's new and different and what companies in Bangalore and Sao Paolo are doing.

AA: What are you doing to be a better CMO?

Mr. Henson: Networking with a lot of other CMOs -- both formally and informally. I need to find a better way to develop those networks and contacts in places like Russia and Brazil. And making sure I'm not interacting only with other U.S. corporations.
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