Charles Blankenship, Jr.
Materials Science and Engineering
Class of 1988, BS
Each time Charles “Chip” Blankenship Jr., receives a promotion at General Electric, his responsibility increases by a few billion dollars. Yes, that is billions.
Currently, the graduate of Virginia Tech Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) Department is the President and Chief Executive Officer of GE Appliances and Lighting, an $8 billion a year business. He quipped that he still “sleeps well because he has short nights.”
Prior to this round-the-clock position, he spent time on GE’s aircraft side, leading its $5 billion annual business in GE’s Aviation, Commercial Engines group from 2008 until 2012. That was a step up from his 2002 assignment to assume international responsibilities for its $1 billion regional jet business. That same year GE assigned him its executive liaison role with his alma mater Virginia Tech.
From birth, Blankenship seemed destined to be a Hokie. His father, Charles Blankenship, is a 1960 and a 1962 MSE distinguished alumnus. His aunt and uncle earned graduate degrees in Virginia Tech’s chemistry department, and his family spent some 25 years vacationing annually at nearby Claytor Lake.
Chip grew up in a household where his mother, also a chemist, had hung the Periodic Table in the kitchen, and he would be subjected to quizzes over breakfast before he left each day for Poquoson High School in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia.
“Academics were highly valued in our household,” Blankenship said today. Although team sports were also encouraged, and he did play quarterback through his high school years, getting a “B” in physical education was okay with his parents. But he was expected to excel in chemistry.
His academic proficiency resulted in the Air Force Academy offering him a full scholarship. Virginia Tech, a state school, also wanted Blankenship, but did not offer any financial package. Noting his son was in a quandary, his father weighed in to help him make the decision by asking a single question, “Do you want a career in the military?” When his son responded, “Not really … I just want to fly and serve the obligation,” then his parents nudged him towards Virginia Tech.
Blankenship knew the College of Engineering was renowned for its materials program, although his freshman adviser Frank Marvin remarked that he was the first student to show up and claim MSE as his first choice without consultation. As an undergraduate researcher he worked for Larry Taylor of the chemistry department; his research was part of the interdisciplinary materials groups that crossed the boundaries of chemistry and engineering.
Research with Taylor helped Blankenship secure a co-operative education experience with Martin Marietta Laboratories after his freshman year. At the aerospace company, he worked with a host of Ph.D.s and said he “learned as much there as he did in school.”
For fun, exercise, and spending money, he took a second job while on co-op as an ice-skating teacher for pair performance training, “and the hourly wage was the same as a research scientist,” Blankenship reported. His proclivity for skating started as a four-year-old, and it appeared he had a natural talent for the sport, even training at Lake Placid, a former Olympic site, and playing competitive ice hockey. But when his parents moved to the more balmy climate of the Tidewater area of Virginia, skating disappeared from his hobbies until his co-op job brought him to Baltimore.
In 1988, Blankenship received his baccalaureate degree and a marriage license. He and his wife Belinda, a graduate of William and Mary, quickly moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he had accepted an offer from Carnegie Mellon to work with its dean of engineering on a research project while he pursued his doctorate. Fate changed these plans as his adviser left to take a job with, ironically, GE Aircraft Engines.
With this wrench thrown into his plans, a few conversations took place between Chip, his father, and Ed Starke, also a Virginia Tech engineering graduate, who was then the dean of engineering at the University of Virginia. The result was Blankenship transferred from Carnegie Mellon to U.Va., and worked with Starke on aluminum lithium alloys, an alloy system that became instrumental for the second generation of the space shuttle’s external tank.
Once Blankenship received his doctorate in 1992, he was a sought after commodity, with offers from such global companies as Boeing, Alcoa, McDonnell Douglas, and GE. “I chose GE because of the variety of technical challenges. I could work on everything from tungsten filaments for light bulbs to Ni-base superalloys for gas turbines,” Blankenship explained.
Blankenship began his career as a staff scientist at GE’s Corporate Research and Development facility in Schenectady, New York, where he recalled experiencing “a lot of long cold winters.” He worked on super alloy turbine disks for aircraft engines, making them more efficient with a higher temperature capability.
When he became a program manager in 1994, he led a team of scientists and engineers developing alloys and processes for aircraft engine, land-based gas turbine, lighting systems, medical systems and diesel engine applications. His technical work resulted in 23 papers published in refereed journals and eight U.S. and European patents.
In 1996, he transferred to Aircraft Engines business in Cincinnati and held a number of technical and product management roles. One project in particular was exceptionally memorable to him. He was put in charge of the Embraer CF34 programs, creating a new 70 to 100-passenger jet. He admitted he found it to be a “bit of a challenge,” but he was eager to meet the goal – bringing a family of four airplanes to the commercial airline market.
For three years, he split time between Cincinnati and Brazil where the project was taking place. In addition to his technical and business responsibilities, he also had to learn the language and the culture. His team’s success was validated last year when Embraer and GE celebrated the delivery of the 1000th airplane to Republic Airways. In 2002, Blankenship assumed responsibility for all of GE’s regional jet business, and this position represented his first $1 billion fiscal responsibility.
Throughout this time when he worked with GE’s aircraft groups, Blankenship had the added expertise of being a licensed pilot. And when he flew commercially on Delta, he knew he was on a plane carrying one of his engines. He may have declined the Air Force Academy offer, but aviation consumed his life for many years.
In 2006, Blankenship was reassigned to a larger role with GE, serving as the general manager for GE Aero Energy, a $2.5 billion business, which manufactures and services gas turbine generator sets for power generation, pipeline, and commercial marine applications.
In 2008, Blankenship landed his first vice presidency with the company, in charge of GE Aviation’s Commercial Engines group, a $5 billion annual revenue business. Four years later, the executive was moved to the appliance side of GE as its President and CEO. In 2013, GE added to his title, naming him President and CEO of GE Appliances and Lighting, with revenues now coming in at $8 billion a year.
For Blankenship, GE has always “provided new and bigger challenges…. The challenges bring a steep part to the learning curves.” For more than two decades he has averaged 60 to 70 hour work weeks, leaving his remaining precious time to spend with his family that includes four boys, ranging in age from nine to 19. “Work and family is a full deck,” he admitted.
When Blankenship is able to exercise, often in the form of swimming or crossfit training, he tries to include his sons in the activity. Similarly, they all enjoy family skeet shooting competitions and bird hunting.
His oldest son is enrolled at Indiana University where he is studying acting. However, he might have a Hokie left in one of the remaining offspring. As GE’s liaison to Virginia Tech, he has ample opportunities to be persuasive. For example, this year he brought his youngest son to the GE Leadership Essentials Conference that GE hosts for select engineering students each year.
He has served on both the MSE and the College of Engineering Advisory Boards, improving MSE’s senior design experience, bringing the VT FIRE Building to fruition, and creating the Materials Characterization Laboratory with the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. At the college level, he was part of the team that worked on securing support for the Signature Engineering Building.
His legacy at Virginia Tech was already well established before his induction into the Academy of Engineering Excellence. And it marks the first time that a father and his son are both members, as Chip’s father was inducted in 2007. His academic father (Ph.D. advisor) Ed Starke, was also inducted in 2008. The legacy may actually be a dynasty.
Class of: 1988
Year Inducted into Academy: 2014