Once the most valuable company in the world, GE is making dramatic moves to survive

General Electric (GE), the iconic American corporation that says it brings good things to life, announced in November that it is splitting into three public companies. The firm hopes to focus and simplify its business while reducing its debt.

One of the three new companies will focus on aviation, another on health care, and the third on energy.  GE plans to spin off its health care division, which makes hospital equipment, in early 2023. The following year, it intends to combine its power units and renewable energy unit, which makes turbines for power plants and wind farms, leaving only the aviation business.

The firm will then focus on making and servicing jet engines. Existing GE shareholders will get stakes in each of the new public companies.

This is certainly a dramatic move for the 129-year-old industrial conglomerate. The company started in 1892, after the company, which was of course founded by Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, merged with its rival manufacturing company Thomson-Houston Co. to become General Electric, as it is known today. A few years later the company became one of only 12 companies listed on the newly formed Dow Jones Industrial Average.

During the 1980s and 90s, the firm was run for 20 years by the larger than life Jack Welch. He transformed the manufacturer into a conglomerate, buying up companies, including RCA, owner of the NBC TV network.

At its height, under Welch, GE had expanded into the financial sector and was making everything from refrigerators and plane engines to medical equipment and, of course, light bulbs. It became the most valuable company in the world.

But GE’s problems didn’t come out of the blue. There were many factors involved in its demise. One was Welch’s focus on GE Capital, the firm’s financial services arm. In 2000, the lion’s share of GE’s profitability and almost half its revenue came from GE Capital.

During Welch’s tenure, it became far larger and more successful than GE’s other business units. At its height, GE Capital was the seventh-largest US financial institution. GE Capital enabled the company to smooth over its quarterly earnings report and keep Wall Street happy.

GE Capital moved into retail banking, private label credit cards, brokerage services, home loans, mortgage-backed securities, and insurance. It had also become the world’s largest lessor of cars, equipment, and ship containers, and the biggest private mortgage insurer.

In effect, GE, a household name and established global brand, was more of a financial services company than an industrial manufacturing company making stuff the economy needs. This finance arm was a major factor in GE’s demise. In some ways, GE Capital was the tail wagging the dog.

All hell broke loose when the financial crisis hit in 2008, and GE barely survived, as the crisis revealed it to be overstretched. Despite GE’s reputation for management excellence, the firm was overly dependent on its finance business, which melted under the heat of the excessive risks it had taken during a period of low interest rates and a long bull market. With GE struggling to meet is financial commitments, Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. famously stepped in and invested $3 billion.

The American taxpayer guaranteed tens of billions in debt. The U.S. government designated GE Capital a systemically important financial institution, meaning that it had the potential to wreck the economy if it were to collapse (too big to fail).

So much for the myth that Jack Welch was the greatest manager of the 20th century, elevating management to a kind of science, and for the belief that great management can work miracles. GE was supposedly the textbook case of a corporation creating synergy and value across various companies around the world. Soon, you will barely be able to recognize it.