The story arc of the unraveling of General Electric should be familiar to followers of business news over the last two decades. Wall Street Journal reporters Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann’s crisp Lights Out: Pride, Delusion, and the Fall of General Electric (2020) draws together the vital episodes in one impassive narrative. It’s brimming with lessons about the hazards of obsessively focusing on impressing Wall Street.
Decades of Bad Decisions and Careless Oversight Ruined GE
The fall of General Electric is really the story of how long-time CEO Jeff Immelt got saddled with the doomed legacy of the previous CEO, Jack Welch.
In 2001, Immelt took over a ship that was in trouble but wasn’t sinking yet. Unbeknownst to many analysts and investors—and overlooked by Jack Welch-buffs,—General Electric had been spoiled by greed, lack of transparency, and “lax oversight and buried risks.”
As a rising star, Immelt was part of Welch’s apparatus, perhaps to a smaller extent, at the GE Medical Systems division that Immelt ran previously. Early in his tenure as CEO, Immelt realized the scope of a disaster in the making. However, he didn’t act quickly and decidedly enough to fix the ill-fated ship’s rotten bits.
To focus on the stock’s negative return during Immelt’s 16 years as CEO and pit it against the sixtyfold return over Welch’s 20-year term is myopic. This argument is definitely understandable, yet it is scarcely convincing.
Welch’s good times couldn’t last forever, and Immelt had a tough act to follow. Yes, Welch was a forceful numbers-obsessed management mastermind who transformed GE into the world’s largest, most profitable, and best-admired company during his tenure as CEO. However, many of the mistakes of his corporate strategy manifested years later.
Welch would argue that he pushed his underlings to produce results, not fraud. But even if the CEO didn’t bend the rules himself, Welch cultivated an environment of pressure that incentivized people to do just that.
Welch was fond of saying, “You reinforce the behaviors that you reward. If you reward candor, you’ll get it.” Welch’s playbook rewarded—and got—the worst traits of modern capitalism. In so doing, he sowed the seeds of the company’s tragic decline.
Jack Welch’s Playbook Was Long-term Destructive to GE
Welch had a take-no-prisoners attitude to running GE. He set overly aggressive targets for his managers. He engaged in accounting shenanigans and consistently “managed” the numbers to maintain the myth of consistency and limitless growth. Behind the scenes, Welch’s machination was made possible by crafty-but-legal accounting practices (with auditor KPMG’s blessings, nonetheless,) mazes of financial deals, and murky structures. Welch even underfunded reinsurance reserves by $9.4 billion, helping pump up profits from 1997 to 2001.
Managing financial results wasn’t unique to GE, but the degree of GE’s reliance on the practice was. Management, with its customary swagger, treated the frenzy of last-minute tweaks and transactions each quarter as entirely natural. GE executives have acknowledged that they worked to make sure earnings were always growing in a nice smooth trajectory.
Immelt knew—or came to comprehend—of all this tomfoolery but didn’t break GE’s bad habits swiftly. Specifically, Immelt didn’t dismantle the GE Capital unit, the company’s most significant liability, and it continued to haunt GE. Under pressure, the complex conglomerate structure that Welch had held together during the good times of the ’80s and the ’90s started falling apart towards the end of his tenure.
The winds were shifting on Welch. GE’s share price had soared for years, making it, for a time, the world’s most valuable company. [During Welch’s] final eighteen months, the share price fell 33 percent. … [Bond-market guru Bill Gross commented,] “Institutional investors have wondered why a company can continue to produce 15 percent earnings growth year after year, quarter after quarter.”
An Addiction That Was So Hard to Break
At the heart of General Electric’s fall is how GE Capital came to gain an outsized influence over the parent company and ruined it. Under Jack Welch, GE Capital’s business model of high leverage and “financialization” was resoundingly successful. Financial engineering, e.g., recognizing revenue from long-term service contracts for power-plant repairs and jet-engine maintenance, is not only suspect, but it cannot manufacture results beyond the short term.
GE Capital was the nonbank bank that was embedded in the company’s fabric. Everything that GE produced was leased, rented, or loaned by GE Capital. In other words, the industrial side was sustained by the rise of GE Capital. It was too interlinked to everything else, and that impeded Immelt’s “definancialization” plans.
In the ’90s, Welch embraced the notion that it’s a lot easier to make money in financial services than in industrial manufacturing. The Capital unit provided huge dividends (with enormous risks) while the industrial side was less profitable but more stable.
No wonder, then, that Welch made GE Capital a gargantuan part of GE. GE Capital became the vehicle for his headlong obsession with enhancing pure shareholder value.
Sadly, Welch bet the farm on the continued success of GE Capital. It misused GE’s high-quality credit rating and became a colossal lender and a major shadow bank. Welch’s bet went sour in 2008—GE Capital was the largest commercial paper issuer going into the financial crisis. It needed a $139 billion government bailout, and it has continued to drain the company’s bottom line ever since.
Jeff Immelt focused on pivoting GE towards core industrial businesses. He doubled GE’s investment in R&D. He sold off slower-growth, low-tech, and nonindustrial businesses, but not soon enough. He managed to keep revenues growing and delivered high margins until the financial crisis hit.
Cleaning Up the Mess Left by Welch
Even as Immelt went about restructuring the company around industrial products, he continued to rely on GE Capital “for smoothing out rough quarters and delivering easy profits.” It was a hard addiction to break.
Lights Out acknowledges that Immelt was “playing with a tough hand,” and he knew that “his success would be attributed to his predecessor but his failure would be seen as all his own doing.”
The authors reveal plenty of leadership blind spots. Immelt was a genial and assertive salesperson, and he didn’t like hearing bad news. He didn’t like delivering bad news either.
CEOs are expected to be optimistic, but Immelt was unfailingly overoptimistic. Perhaps his overconfidence was a manifest outcome of the company’s cultural dynamics. Sadly, when a company is doing well, such CEO attributes as optimism, audacity, and foresight that Immelt’s leadership personified are heralded as brilliant, but when things go wrong, they’re the first to get the blame. Results are all that matters.
Some board members … had … a poor impression of Immelt’s deal-making skills. The knock on Immelt was that he chased trends, arrived too late, and paid handsomely. One rival CEO joked that he was “fad surfing.”
Immelt Made Bad Decisions and Was Slow to Make Changes
Immelt spent over $100 billion on ill-timed share buybacks to shore up earnings-per-share and so the stock price. He had a history of overpaying for acquisitions. He was reluctant to back away from deals that he was dead set on, even when the deal’s prospects became dubious during the parleying.
Immelt tended to start negotiations too high, sometimes to the surprise of others involved in the deal, leaving little room for negotiation. It wasn’t uncommon for the board to approve one of Immelt’s deals, only to have him ask for approval to pay more in order to make the deal work. In some ways, this tendency simply reflected Immelt’s experience as a salesman. He’d always needed to close deals, and for a company like GE, paying a little more didn’t seem to cause any concern.
No decision could be more illustrative of Immelt’s fateful deal-making than the one for Alstom, the French power generating equipment company. Immelt set his reputation on that deal because GE Power would be “the centerpiece of his new GE.” Immelt didn’t walk out on the deal even after regulators forced General Electric to divest Alstom’s lucrative service business and take on 30,000 high-cost employees in Europe.
Worst of all, the deal was spectacularly mistimed. With the Alstom purchase, Immelt doubled down on fossil-fuel-fired turbines just as renewables were becoming more cost-competitive. Demand for GE Power’s products collapsed in next to no time, and that unit’s profit plunged 45% in 2017. The whole Alstom transaction turned out to be an out-and-out disaster. In 2018, General Electric took a $22 billion goodwill impairment charge for the Alstom acquisition.
Hope and Optimism Could Take Immelt Only So Far
It’s both easy and unfair to comment on what GE should have done. Immelt’s prospects were seriously encumbered by the September 11 attacks, post-Enron accounting rules, the 2008 financial credit crisis, and a substantial recession that hit the energy industry.
The world in which Jeff Immelt had thought he would be leading GE had been turned upside down. The recession and the uncertainty that followed the terrorist attacks had dampened the global growth on which GE’s industrial businesses depended. And changes to accounting rules in the wake of the Enron scandal, by requiring that the company now account for the vast financial holdings on its balance sheet at GE Capital, had eliminated an easy and reliable source of paper profits to smooth over rough periods.
Lights Out explains how, during the last five years of his tenure, Immelt’s misfortunes piled on. GE Healthcare took a pause (it’s innovative, high-profit machines had become increasingly commoditized.) The GE Renewables business rarely turned a profit. The GE Transportation unit’s sales stagnated. GE Power built an extensive inventory hoping for a return in demand for its large, expensive machines. The merger of GE Oil and Gas with Baker Hughes turned out to be untimely too.
For many investors, GE had lost its mojo. Its lackluster performance, fuzzy financials, and unknown risk just didn’t fit with a lot of investment portfolios.
Leadership Mismanagement, Self-Dealing, Collusion
The deplorable collapse of General Electric, and GE Capital, in particular, was fostered by the board’s abysmal stewardship.
GE’s board was dysfunctional. It comprised too many directors who owed their cushy positions to Welch and Immelt and merely rubber-stamped their strategic actions. As chairman of the board, Immelt promptly cast out Welch-appointed directors who objected to his plans.
As they’d done under Welch, the board usually tended to approve Immelt’s recommendations and follow his lead. Some felt that Immelt manipulated the board, and it was whispered that members were chosen and educated to see the company through his visionary eyes. There was concern that the board didn’t entirely understand how GE worked, and that Immelt was just fine with that. Like many CEOs who are also their company’s chairman, he made sure that his board was aligned with him.
Just last week, GE agreed to a $200 million fine to settle a Securities and Exchange Commission probe into feel-good accounting at its Power and Insurance units.
Too Steeped in the GE Culture to Effect a Major Transformation
Immelt was replaced by John Flannery, a finance specialist. Flannery had run the business development team when GE Power bought Alstom. He wasn’t likely to kick off any dramatic changes in GE’s business strategy. His proposals for GE’s transformation were consistent with Immelt’s strategy.
Flannery tried to stop GE’s hemorrhaging of money but wasn’t quick enough either. He showed reluctance—caution perhaps—to take risky and complicated actions that could have been costly or even impossible to reverse.
If Immelt was known for his vaulting optimism, Flannery soon became known for his indecision and endless analysis. Few decisions, even major ones, were final. A critical strategic move, like the separation of a major division, could be made, only to be reassessed at any time. Flannery’s style was quickly grating on top executives who worked with him.
The board got insecure quickly because of widespread public criticism that it had waited too long to remove Immelt. “After sixteen years of Immelt, Flannery thought that he had more time to turn the ship around, but when he looked for support from the board, there was none there.” Fourteen months into his term, Flannery was forced out.
For the first time in its 126-year history, GE, which prided itself as a talent factory, handed the leadership baton to an “outsider” to bring a fresh perspective.
New CEO Lawrence “Larry” Culp is generally admired for his stellar record of accomplishment at Danaher, a smaller industrial conglomerate. “Culp had more experience, and he also had no emotional attachment to GE.” Culp had joined GE’s board six months before and had started questioning the wisdom he’d received from Flannery and his team.
Having an outsider take charge of a storied company marks how much change the board desired. GE may not reclaim its once-celebrated footprint. But it’ll continue to be one of the great American business stories.
Jack Welch’s GE: Everything Worked Until It Didn’t
Recommendation: Must-Read Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann’s excellent Lights Out: Pride, Delusion, and the Fall of General Electric. It’s a great reminder that even America’s most iconic companies—and the world’s leading businesses—can go off the rails if things go wrong.
It wasn’t Immelt’s fault that the entire oil sector had turned south. But he was responsible for GE investors being so openly exposed to the collapse. … He had spent sixteen years at the top and, regardless of what Welch had left for him; he’d had plenty of time to fix it.
Lights Out is a revealing, reasonable, and accessible narrative of how a thriving company was humbled by sheer misfortune and poor leadership.
Jack Welch’s razzle-dazzle capitalism party could last only so long.