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Former GE CEO Jeff Immelt becomes chairman of athenahealth

Steven Senne/Associated Press/File 2016

Jeff Immelt is filling out his post-General Electric life with another high-profile company in the Boston area.

By Jon Chesto Globe Staff 

Jeff Immelt is filling out his post-General Electric life with another high-profile company in the Boston area.

The former chief executive who relocated GE to Boston is now chairman of athenahealth Inc., the Watertown-based developer of health care records software.

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Immelt arrives in the athenahealth boardroom as chief executive Jonathan Bush makes several moves to prepare the company for a new stage of growth and to respond to pressure from an activist investor. Bush had pledged to hand off his position as athenahealth chairman, among other things, and Immelt’s retirement from GE last year made him available for the role.

The former GE executive has another experience relevant to athenahealth right now: tangling with an activist investor. Elliott Management, a feared Wall Street hedge fund that acquired a 9 percent stake in athenahealth, began pushing for changes last year, saying the company’s stock was undervalued.

Athenahealth has since announced it would trim its workforce by 9 percent and expand the board of directors to 11 seats to include more independent members, first with the addition of Brian McKeon in September and again with Immelt’s arrival. Athenahealth also hired a new chief financial officer, Marc Levine, in December.

Bush downplayed Elliott’s specific role in these changes and said he expects Immelt’s arrival to be embraced by athenahealth shareholders: “My spider-sense is that they’re going to be thrilled.”

GE, meanwhile, has been under pressure from another investment firm, Trian Fund Management, to make deep cuts in operations and reverse a long-term slide in the stock price. A Trian partner was appointed to GE’s board, and the investor is believed to be behind not only Immelt’s earlier-than-expected exit but the additional measures his successor, John Flannery, is taking to shake up and slim down the industrial giant.

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Immelt’s new appointment follows the announcement last week that he would also join California-based venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates as a partner. Immelt said he expects to devote the majority of his time to NEA, which also has an office in Cambridge. He will keep his home in Boston and work on both coasts. He is also teaching a course at the Stanford Graduate School of Business with venture capitalist Robert Siegel.

Bush said he lobbied the search committee of athenahealth to consider Immelt soon after GE announced in June that Immelt would be replaced by Flannery.

“I heard Jeff was retiring, and I’m thinking ‘Holy Moses, this is a sign,’ ” said Bush, who is also cofounder of the 21-year-old company.

“If you’re me and you have a chance to have Jeff Immelt as your personal coach, I consider this to be a pretty significant perk to be added to my job.”

The former GE boss brings a big name to athenahealth, a deep Rolodex of connections, and considerable health care and management expertise. He ran GE’s health care business, which makes an array of machines and software used in hospitals, before becoming CEO of the overall company in 2001.

Immelt said he has long been intrigued with athenahealth’s approach — the company offers cloud-based services for health care providers such as patient records and scheduling — and sees its potential to become a dominant platform within the health care industry.

“Particularly in health care, it’s going to be the small- and medium-sized companies that are going to be disrupters,” Immelt said.

Immelt said he would be an adviser to Bush as athenahealth tries to grow from its current size of $1.2 billion in annual revenue to five to 10 times that size.

The company currently employs nearly 5,200 people, including 2,120 in Watertown. Immelt plans to invest $1 million in the company’s stock to show his commitment.

“I want to help Jon think through strategy,” Immelt said. “I want to help athena achieve its dreams.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.