General Electric’s executives want it to be a leader in any industry in which the company does business. Just not the kind of “leadership” the company has shown in the stock market.
GE finished 2018 as the worst performer among the 25 biggest Massachusetts public companies, its stock down 57 percent for the year. It was the second straight year GE held that honor: The stock plunged 45 percent in 2017.
No wonder the Boston-based company is on its third CEO in as many years.
Could 2019 be a happier year for GE? Many analysts and shareholders seem to think so. (GE’s shares rose 6 percent on Wednesday to clear $8, on the first day of 2019 trading, possibly as some investors who had sold stock for tax purposes last year returned.)
The new CEO, Larry Culp, in the job for three months, is looking to slim the company down to three main business lines — power, renewable energy, and aviation — and to address some of its biggest challenges:
Fixing GE Power
Despite aggressive downsizing, analysts say, the company’s problematic GE Power division still has too much capacity, given the sluggish demand for natural gas turbines.
Not helping matters: An oxidation problem with some turbine blades could cost GE nearly $500 million over time.
One of Culp’s first decisions was to split the power business in two, in part to get more clarity on the performance of the natural gas-focused portion. A new director with power industry experience recently joined GE’s board; Culp is sure to tap her expertise.
Probes by the Securities and Exchange Commission and Justice Department continue to cast dark clouds. They are concerned about the timing GE used to recognize revenue, and an unexpected $22 billion write-down in October for GE Power. Former CEO Jeff Immelt tried to divest most of the financial services, but the ghosts of GE Capital continue to haunt. The company has set aside $1.5 billion to resolve a probe into a long-discarded mortgage business, and long-term care insurance continues to bleed money.
Detangling the conglomerate
GE’s status as a diversified conglomerate will soon be over, if things go according to a plan that started under Culp’s predecessor, John Flannery. The lighting and train divisions are on their way out; Baker Hughes, an oil-field business, will be separate. And GE Healthcare, the second-strongest business, after GE Aviation, will soon be a new public company, run by its top executive, Chicago-based Kieran Murphy. It’s a delicate dance, unloading all of this in a relatively short time.
GE’s Boston presence
Culp showed no interest in a flashy HQ when he ran Danaher Corp. It seems unlikely the futuristic 12-story tower GE once pledged to build in Fort Point will go up as planned, but the company has not publicly ruled it out. For now, renovations continue on two older brick buildings. There should be room for GE’s 225 headquarters employees when that work is done later this year. The 800 that GE once promised to bring to Boston? That’s another story.
Culp’s objectives include freeing up more cash to reduce GE’s mountain of debt and to address its looming pension shortfall. Maybe, someday, he will bring back a real dividend. And, of course, he wants to avoid another catastrophic year for the stock. It’s time, Culp would argue, to be a leader again in that market, too.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.