Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that GE’s stock price has declined from about $60 a share to about $20 in the decade since Jeffrey Immelt became the company’s chief executive. The price has dropped from about $40 a share to about $20. This version has been corrected.
America’s largest conglomerate, General Electric, is learning humility abroad as it taps into global markets — and is picking up management techniques along the way.
GE executives say its seven-year-old joint venture with South Korea’s Hyundai Card and Hyundai Capital shows that — in addition to boosting profit and serving as a guide in an unfamiliar market — new partners can sometimes teach GE new tricks in marketing, operational efficiency and customer relations.
In countries such as China, India, South Korea and Brazil, foreign companies are increasingly able to control the terms of partnerships when Western companies want to strike joint ventures to tap emerging-market growth. While risks abound for companies such as GE, IBM and Alcoa, so do the opportunities. GE is also finding that management intelligence sometimes emerges as a side benefit.
GE could use the help. A company at its pinnacle in the late 1990s as chief executive Jack Welch handed it over to Jeffrey Immelt, it’s gone through a series of fits and starts since. In Immelt’s first decade as CEO, GE’s stock price slid from about $40 a share to its current value of about $20. Immelt has had mixed reviews in managing the company through downturns after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 2008 credit crisis that bruised GE and forced it to seek government help in the bond markets.
Meanwhile, the Seoul-based financial-services business of Hyundai Motor Group has been growing rapidly since 2004, when it sold a 43 percent stake in its credit card and consumer lending business to GE for $600 million after a credit crisis struck South Korea and Hyundai Capital faced a near-$1 billion loss.
“This was the first time we took a large amount of money into a company where we don’t have full control,” said Bernard van Bunnik, a GE business executive and deputy chief executive at Hyundai Capital and Hyundai Cards. He’s learned that partnerships can be mutually beneficial. “It’s a good way to get to scale in a new country.”
The Fairfield, Conn., company used to be gun-shy about such minority share joint ventures and wanted full control of business operations in foreign countries. Executives say Welch avoided minority stakes because he thought they would threaten the culture of speed and efficiency he’d built inside GE. But as its foreign revenue has tilted to more than 50 percent in recent years, GE is striking partnerships as a means of finding market intelligence in places such as Asia and the Middle East.
The Hyundai financial-services business has grown dramatically. Koreans are heavy credit card users, and Hyundai offers branded credit cards with annual fees ranging from $20 to $2,000 for luxury cards. Hyundai makes mortgage, personal and auto loans, as well. Hyundai Capital and Hyundai Card’s assets have grown to $25 billion, and GE has expanded its investment in the company, injecting a total of $3 billion.
Ted Chung, chief executive of Hyundai Card and Hyundai Capital, said GE has taught Hyundai how to improve its risk management, compliance and back-office procedures in finance. Meanwhile, Chung and his team have taught GE some new collections methods for emerging markets, and they are regarded as a marketing model.
GE invited Chung, a colorful personality who wears designer suits, to speak to top GE Capital executives in Florida in January. He also spoke to top marketing and technology executives at GE’s famed in-house management school in Crotonville, N.Y., in October about how Hyundai has increased its market share in South Korea using creative advertising and marketing techniques.
Beth Comstock, a senior vice president and chief marketing officer at GE, said Chung is a master of customer-focused marketing and of targeting new segments, such as credit card users under age 35. “His team has done an excellent job using digital and social media to create exclusive entertainment offerings for customers,” she said, pointing out that those efforts have increased the credit card user base and, in some cases, prices.
According to van Bunnik, the joint venture is considered a best practice within GE for marketing, branding and selling. Hyundai employs 20 in-house designers and focuses on being a creative workplace with a hot tub, cafe and gym in the building. It’s opening dozens of high-design retail “Finance Shops” for its customers in business districts across South Korea.
Chung aims for creativity in marketing Hyundai cards the way American Express does in the United States, with different cards for different users. In addition to TV, print and online ads, Hyundai heavily uses blogs, Twitter and other methods to make customers feel a certain way about Hyundai cards.
Chung sees GE’s marketing as too process-driven and technical. He suggests that GE involve more “soul and emotion.” Hyundai Cards has sponsored events as varied as concerts by Placido Domingo and Beyonce and tennis matches between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Cardholders get discounts on such events, which also serve as incentives for non-cardholders to sign up.
In terms of operations, Hyundai expanded a GE practice called “best time to call,” when Hyundai tracks the best times to reach customers for special offers, bill collections or account maintenance issues. Hyundai in 2009 invented its own “best channel to contact” — where Hyundai tracks the best ways to contact customers — whether by direct mail, text message, e-mail or telephone. It then tracks the most effective communication for each customer and uses that contact method in the future.
“On any channel, we don’t want to have too many touches of you,” van Bunnik said. “We call it customer fatigue. We want to be careful of how often we contact you.” The practice improved collections and customer satisfaction and, in 2010, GE took the approach to its card businesses in Australia and other parts of Asia.
Hyundai is also piloting tests of its sales staff’s use of mobile phones to access files and other information while meeting with customers or when they’re out of the office. GE aims to make the practice more widespread in South Korea, India and other emerging markets where GE Capital operates.
But the relationship isn’t a one-way street. Chung has expanded the number of GE employees at the joint venture, which has 20 GE executives out of 7,000 total employees. Chung appreciates the rigorous and careful nature of the GE staff members, who have helped Hyundai beef up its anti-fraud efforts and finance, risk, human resources, legal and compliance areas.
The partnership does come with its share of culture clashes. For example, during a business meeting, a Hyundai executive joked that he’d spoken with a competitor socially Later, GE sent “a bunch of people to investigate” the conversation for six months to make sure it did not violate any regulations. Chung said that the Hyundai executives learned, “It’s like flying at the airport. They accept no joke.”
Comstock said that “partnerships have been a big priority” under Immelt. She noted that the company’s NBC business launched a joint venture with News Corp. to create the online channel Hulu, which started as a 50-50 joint venture but with NBC reducing its stake as new partners have joined.
The company’s most profitable joint venture is a 50-50 partnership signed in 1974 with France’s Snecma to make the CFM family of aircraft engines, which have become top sellers. Immelt has inked several major joint ventures in the Middle East and China, including an $8 billion commercial finance company with Mubadala Development in Abu Dhabi in 2008.
Not all of its partnerships are runaway successes, though. GE has had a global alliance on nuclear reactor projects with Japan’s Hitachi since 2007, and the joint venture brought in roughly $1 billion in revenue in 2010 for GE. But the partners are lagging behind competitors such as Westinghouse Electric on new reactor sales. GE also has a public-relations headache to deal with related to the Fukushima Daiichi power station in Japan, where its boiling-water reactors have been operating for decades.
The recent earthquake and tsunami-damaged generator equipment are igniting fears of radiation emanating from some of the reactors.
Steve Sargent, chief executive of GE Capital in the Asia Pacific region, said GE carefully evaluates potential minority stakes to make sure the partners’ goals align and that GE has “significant operational involvement” so it’s not a passive minority investment. “You may have the legal infrastructure to execute there. But it may not always work as well as you would like,” Sargent said. “The processes may be a little cumbersome and slow.”
GE has an ongoing minority stake in a credit card business with the State Bank of India. It has announced several joint ventures in China on railroads, wind turbines and avionics, including several in which GE has a minority stake. GE and Hyundai are also discussing whether to extend their joint ventures beyond credit cards and leases into commercial lending and leasing in South Korea.
During his annual outlook presentation in December, Immelt said the company aims to grow in markets such as Russia, Brazil, China, India and the Middle East.
GE, he said, will be doing more “local partnerships to make us more a part of the indigenous investment scene inside these countries.”
Glader is a journalist based in New York City.