GE’s decline is a warning to Corporate India
General Electric, and its ouster from Dow Jones Industrial Average, has become an apt metaphor for the changing dynamics of business
At the end of each year, The Economist releases its report on how the next 12 months will pan out for various aspects of global business and society. It is a useful, if conservative crystal gazing exercise, involving anticipating developments in areas like the next wave in cybercrime and religion but also the future of the circus.
If, however, you are looking for a wider view of the future of business, the narrative to track is that of General Electric Co. (GE), the 126-year-old company founded by Thomas Edison, among others. In its many successes and its recent failures, the company has become an apt metaphor for the changing dynamics of business pointing to an emerging world which is no respecter of age or pedigree or size, where an entire industry can be upended by a rank newcomer with a single powerful idea and vitally where past success is no insurance against future setbacks. Significantly, GE’s relative decline coincides with the burgeoning fortunes of an upstart like Amazon.com Inc. which is threatening to be the world’s first company to scale a trillion dollars in market cap.
The fall of the once-mighty conglomerate from the hallowed ranks of the Dow Jones Industrial Average comes as no surprise. The giant conglomerate, the oldest company in the Dow, has faced major setbacks over the last few years and has been losing value at an alarming rate. Its market cap has fallen over 50% in the last 18 months.
What has been surprising is how muted the reaction to its decline has been. For years, the company was a potent symbol of American industrial might, spanning as it did businesses as diverse as aircraft engines and medical devices. Above all, it was also a bellwether for dynamic new ideas in building businesses.
The company got most things right including stability at the top; both Jack Welch and his successor Jeffrey Robert Immelt had long runs as leaders. It was flexible, had robust processes and had quality standards that became benchmarks for the industries it was in.
Just how far ahead the company thought, is evidenced from its entry into the nascent Indian market in the 1980s. There is the now oft-repeated tale of how Jack Welch, the company’s legendary chairman, outlined the potential of the Indian market and GE’s plans for it on a table napkin at a luncheon with top editors in the late 1980s. GE was also one of the pioneers of business process outsourcing to India setting up Genpact in 1997.
Of course GE made mistakes. It never came to terms with its ambitious media acquisitions and the $9.5 billion purchase of French transportation company Alstom’s power business in 2015 didn’t quite work out. Above all there was the Welch-led drive into financial services which at one point dominated the company’s profit numbers. But when the financial crisis hit in 2008, that business proved to be a millstone around its neck.
Even in India, despite an early and promising start, it floundered with investments such as the one in Dabhol and ironically its joint venture with the Godrej group for consumer appliances.
But the vast devastation in its valuation has less to do with its own actions, including those that were misguided, and more by the changes in the environment itself.
GE may still stoop to conquer. It has the chops to dig itself out of this hole. Under its new chief executive officer John Flannery, an old India hand, the company has announced plans to focus on the aviation, power, and renewable energy businesses while spinning off its healthcare unit as a stand-alone business and selling off its stake in its oil services company Baker Hughes while retaining its wind turbines manufacturing unit.
But the lessons of GE’s fall from grace shouldn’t be lost on the vast lumbering giants of corporate India, smug in their size and relative monopolies protected by regulation and political patronage. It can all change in one millennial moment of creative destruction.
Sundeep Khanna is a consulting editor at Mint and oversees the newsroom’s corporate coverage.The Corporate Outsider will look at current issues and trends in the corporate sector every week.