When Suzy R. Welch ’81 falls in love, she falls hard.
As an undergraduate working at The Crimson, she discovered her love for journalism. As a graduate student at Harvard Business School, she discovered her love for business—its potential and problems. And as editor of the Harvard Business Review (HBR), she discovered her love for Jack F. Welch.
She met Welch, the retired CEO of General Electric, on October 11, 2001—the date is engraved on her wedding band, she says—to interview him for an HBR article. She then wrote the article, she recounts in her spacious Boston home, adding that it had been edited and shipped into production by the time she flew down to New York City in late December to take a photo with Welch, who was married at the time.
After a lunch together, which in her words “was the longest in the history of mankind,” and dinner later that evening, Jack and the future Mrs. Welch realized their relationship was a romantic one.
The next day, she called her boss Walter Kiechel ’68, editorial director of Harvard Business School Publications, to tell him that he should pull the article she had written on Jack Welch. Four months later, she resigned.
“I was fired,” she says now. “They would tell you I resigned. Whatever, I left.”
“When you look back at it now, you see the unbelievably glowing coverage of our wedding in People magazine, and the flashy feature of me in Bazaar magazine,” Welch says, referring to recent articles about her and Jack Welch. “All the beautiful coverage you get now, it’s like it never happened.”
And indeed, Welch says that she does not miss her old job. “Winning,” the book written by the couple and published last year, has sold two million copies, according to Suzy Welch. They also write a syndicated column for The New York Times and a weekly column in BusinessWeek. Welch also writes her own column on women’s issues in O, The Oprah Magazine.
“Do I miss journalism? I don’t know,” she says. “I probably write more than most journalists.”
BIG SHOT ON CAMPUS
“I knew I was going to be a journalist, and that was it—full stop,” Welch says of her college days. A fine arts concentrator focusing in Dutch art, Welch was also features editor of The Crimson. According to Erica Rosenberg ’81, her roommate for three years in Thayer Hall and Lowell House, she also played in the University Band and was captain of the squash team.
“She was actually really quite the jock,” Rosenberg says.
“She brought a lot of flare to her work. She was very creative in what she did,” remembers Susan K. Brown ’81, who was city editor at The Crimson.
According to Brown, Welch also “had a good eye for cute guys. She dated a lot. She had an active social life.”
Paul M. Barrett ’83 says he dated Welch when he was a sophomore, after they met at The Crimson.
“She was one of the big shots when I was a nobody there,” he says.
Barrett remembers getting into good-natured debates about U.S. involvement in Latin America. She “was probably, at that time, a little to my left politically,” he recalls. “She was definitely someone who was not afraid to get into an argument.”
‘THEY CAN’T ALL BE BAD’
After graduation, she interned at The Washington Post for three months, where she had the opportunity to write stories about the air traffic control strike of 1981. She then took a reporting position at The Miami Herald, where the term “crazy 80s” took on a whole new meaning.
“Every possible reporter was completely deployed on covering the riots,” she remembers. “You couldn’t believe the stuff you were covering. And then two years into it, the Marriott Boat lift occurred. There was a gigantic historic upheaval, and I was there.”
She then moved to Boston, married former Phillips Exeter Academy classmate Eric Wetlaufer, and became a reporter for the Associated Press, an opportunity she calls “eye-opening.”
“I had my first management experience when I was made manager of the overnight shift,” she says. “I was 25 years old and was suddenly made the supervisor of a unionized shop of reporters from midnight to 8 a.m. And, I will tell you, that I was completely, utterly unequipped to do that.”
She began covering business, which she says changed her perception of the business world. She grew up in a family of artists—not businesspeople—and worked on a college newspaper where she says the predominant opinion among writers was that “business is bad,” and that “they all are greedy lowlifes.”
“I just came face-to-face with what I didn’t know,” she says of her early days as a business reporter. “I thought, ‘What was I thinking? They can’t all be bad.’”
In a move she calls the “nuttiest thing,” she applied to the Business School. She considers her acceptance a fluke, but she ended up a Baker Scholar and landing a job at a consulting firm after graduation.
She attributes her success to her ability to write articulately and ask questions imperturbably. Her tenure at the Associated Press also gave her the management experience that other students lacked, she says.
“I did have something that other kids there didn’t have in that some kids had been incredible financial analysts on Wall Street, but they had never had to manage anyone,” she says. “So, I actually had a little baptism by fire.”
After working in consulting and having four children, she joined HBR in 1996 and worked her way up to becoming editor. Today, she is proud of having increased the journal’s frequency of publication from six to 12 times a year.
CONFLICT OF (LOVE) INTEREST
And then, a year after divorcing Wetlaufer, love for a source struck.
“Our timing was exquisitely bad,” she says. “This was the middle of the corporate malfeasance frenzy, and people didn’t take me at my word that we weren’t romantically involved when the article was written.”
Welch says she understands why journalists jumped on the story.
“You have the editor of the Harvard Business Review, and whether you like it or not, the Harvard name carries all sorts of free fall,” she says. “Harvard has this reputation as being this upstanding institution.”
Some HBR editors called for her resignation in the spring of 2002, according to a Crimson article. She was then put on what she calls a “house arrest kind-of-thing,” where she was not allowed to enter the HBR building.
“Things were wild,” she says, referring to her experiences going back to work after she told Kiechel about the affair. “Some people were really understanding and compassionate, and other people were just downright mad.”
When asked where she personally draws the line between objectivity and getting too close to a source, she says that when a relationship with a source “compromises your judgment to write a fair and balanced story,” you have violated the principle. But the answer to this “eternal question of journalism,” as she calls it, is still not concrete for her.
She admits, however, that she is not the one to ask for a definitive answer to the question of how close is too close.
“I’m not an authority on it,” she says. “Clearly, I tested the limits on it. And I paid the price for it.”
Some of her colleagues in the field have told her that she violated one of the most essential codes of journalism, she says. Others have told her that she did the right thing by stopping the story from ever being printed. Regardless, she says she has no complaints and does not blame anyone.
“Could I have met Jack under different circumstances, it sure would have been better for the institution, but it didn’t happen that way. Jack and I have reconstructed all the different ways we could have met,” she says. “One of our favorite parlor games is sitting around talking about when we could have met where it would not have caused a detonation.”
If she could go back and handle the situation differently, she says, “We would have had a press conference and said, ‘Look, we plan to marry.’”
“We were grown-ups, we weren’t kids, this wasn’t a crush, these were two people whose lives were now changed,” she adds. “I should have quit the next day. That was my mistake.”
—Staff writer Katherine M. Gray can be reached at email@example.com.