From good to not so great

What's happened to GE? Last month it was beaten to Dow Jones by Rupert Murdoch, having failed to get a planned rival bid off the ground. Yesterday it announced that it was pulling out of the $8bn acquisition of Abbott Laboratories' diagnostics division, having spent nearly six months trying to agree terms. And now today comes the news that the 'For Sale' board has gone up outside its US sub-prime mortgage business, WMC.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A particularly sorry tale, this - WMC was only bought by GE in 2004, just in time for the bottom to fall out of the US sub-prime lending market, and last year it sold off nearly $3bn of loans and laid off more than 1,200 staff. Like the small print says, the value of your investments may go down as well as up.

It's all a far cry from the glory days of the '90s, when General Electric as it was then known was a truly stellar performer, posting stupendous growth figures and standing head and shoulders above the rest of the multinational crowd. Under the ruthlessly high-octane, high-profile leadership of superboss Jack Welch the firm could do no wrong - even though it bucked the corporate strategy trend of the times by remaining a diversified conglomerate for years after most of the other such organisations had split themselves up in pursuit of 'core competencies'.

In those days, if you wanted to win an argument at work or impress your boss (or even your institutional shareholders) there was no better retort than 'that's what Jack Welch would do'. He was the archetypal corporate tough-guy, unafraid of hard decisions and with an uncommon relish for cutting out dead wood. He earned his nickname 'Neutron Jack' because, like a neutron bomb, he eliminated people whilst leaving buildings intact.

Almost inevitably, the company has struggled since his retirement in 2000. Such charismatic leaders rarely possess the humility to plan well for their own exit. His successor Jeffrey Immelt is widely regarded as a top drawer exec, but the truth is that during his two decades in charge, Welch created a business that he and he alone could get the most out of.

That it's taking a long time for Neutron Jack's dust to settle is plain to see - Immelt has been busy restructuring and re-focusing the business for the past five or six years, but he's nowhere near done yet. Whether GE will ever regain its old prominence remains to be seen, but if this is what happens afterwards, why would it want to?

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