For nearly 130 years, General Electric has been one of the biggest makers of American things. Now, it’s breaking itself apart.
But GE’s expansive reach has come to haunt it in recent years as it struggled to slim its business operations and pay down massive debt. Now, in what chairman and chief executive Larry Culp referred to as a “defining moment,” GE has concluded that it can unlock the most value by breaking itself apart.
GE Healthcare is slated to be spun off in early 2023, the company announced Tuesday, while the renewables and power units will be formed into new energy business in early 2024. The remaining business, GE, will focus on aviation and be led by Culp.
“The world demands — and deserves — we bring our best to solve the biggest challenges in flight, health care, and energy,” Culp said in a statement. “By creating three industry-leading, global public companies, each can benefit from greater focus, tailored capital allocation, and strategic flexibility to drive long-term growth and value for customers, investors, and employees.”
GE products have brushed against every corner of modern life: radio and cable, planes, power, health care, computing, financial services. One of the original components of the Dow Jones industrial average, its shares were once among the most widely held in the country. In 2007, before the financial crisis, GE was the second-most valuable company in the world, alongside ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Toyota.
But GE has fallen out of favor with investors and struggled to evolve as the nation’s tech giants have taken up the mantle of innovation. Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet and Amazon, whose products have become integral to the fabric of modern American life, claim market capitalizations in the trillions. Meanwhile, GE has been eroded by years of debt, badly timed acquisitions and underperforming operations. It now claims a market value of about $122 billion.
Dan Ives, managing director at Wedbush Securities, said that Wall Street sees the breakup as long overdue.
“Traditional stalwarts like GE, GM, IBM have all had to adjust with the times as these US companies looked in the mirror and saw the lagging growth and lack of corporate efficiency,” Ives told The Washington Post Tuesday in an email. “It’s another chapter in the long storied history of GE and a sign of the times in this new digital world.”
At its height, GE was synonymous with innovation and corporate exceptionalism. Jack Welch, its bigger-than-life leader, slashed head counts and grew the company aggressively through acquisitions. According to Fortune, GE was worth $14 billion when Welch took over in 1981 and more than $400 billion when he stepped down about 20 years later.
He came to personify corporate power in an era where executives were admired for being laser-focused on profits rather than scrutinized for the social cost of their businesses. The Financial Times called him the “father of the shareholder value” movement, and Fortune named him “Manager of the Century” in 1999.
One of his mottos was, “Face reality.”
In 2001, the reins were handed over to Jeffrey R. Immelt, who overhauled much of what Welch built and had to contend with enormous losses related to the company’s power and financial services operations. Under Immelt’s 16-year run, GE shares lost more than a quarter of their value.
By the time Culp took over in 2018, GE had already spun off its home appliances, plastics and financial services businesses. The move to further break down the company is reflective of Culp’s “ongoing strategic focus,” Wayne Wicker, chief investment officer at MissionSquare Retirement.
“He continues to focus on ways to simplify the complex set of businesses he inherited and this move appears to provide a way for investors to value each of these business units on a standalone basis,” Wicker told The Post in an email. “Each of these companies will have their own Board of Directors which may allow for greater operational focus as they try to enhance shareholder value.”
GE lost its spot on the Dow in 2018, replaced by Walgreens Boots Alliance on the blue-chip index. Its stock has shed 2 percent each year since 2009; by comparison, the S&P 500 index has recorded a 9 percent annual return, according to CNBC.
In the announcement, GE said it was on track to reduce its debt by $75 billion by the end of 2021, with about $65 billion in gross debt remaining. But the company’s liabilities are still likely to haunt the new stand-alone companies, according to Colin Scarola, an equity analyst with CFRA Research.
“The separations don’t come as a shock, as GE has been divesting businesses for years in efforts to reduce its overleveraged balance sheet,” Scarola said Tuesday in comments emailed to The Post. “No plans on post-spin capital structures have been provided yet, but we would not be surprised if the spin-offs are saddled with disproportionate amounts of GE’s current debt, as is often the case with these types of restructurings.”
GE shares closed Tuesday at $111.29, up nearly 2.7 percent. The stock has climbed more than 50 percent in 2021, according to MarketWatch.