Few corporate meltdowns have been as swift and dramatic as General Electric’s over the past 18 months – but the problems started long before that.
It’s a bad day for a CEO when he announces he’s retiring and the stock goes up. That was Jeff Immelt’s day on June 12, 2017. The news of his departure was in one sense no surprise – some investors and analysts had been urging his ouster for years – but it was also a shock.
He’d been General Electric’s CEO for almost 16 years, and outsiders were unaware of any specific succession plans or that Immelt, at age 61, had any intention of stepping down. Suddenly they were told that in just seven weeks he’d be gone as CEO (he remained nonexecutive board chairman an additional two months), to be succeeded by John Flannery, head of GE’s health care business and a 30-year employee. Investors didn’t need long to decide this was good news. The market was flat that day, but they bid GE stock up 4%.
Their optimism was at best premature. The stock closed at $28.94 on June 12 and has not reached that price since. As economies boomed worldwide and U.S. stock indexes soared, GE has collapsed in a meltdown that has destroyed well over $100 billion of shareholder wealth. Pounded by a nonstop barrage of bad news, investors are traumatized and disoriented. “They just can’t figure it out and don’t want to invest,” says analyst Nicholas Heymann of William Blair & Co. “This isn’t like surveying the landscape. It’s spelunking with no lights and no manual.” Analyst Scott Davis of Melius Research says some investors have become permanently disillusioned: “Many have told us they will never own GE again.”
Retirees and employees who bought heavily into the stock are furious; some picketed GE’s annual meeting in April. Former executives are dumbfounded. “It’s unfathomable,” says one. “You couldn’t possibly dream this up. It’s crazy.” After all, this is GE, a corporate aristocrat, an original Dow component, the world’s most celebrated management academy, now revealed as a financial quagmire with a deeply uncertain future. Its bonds, rated triple-A when Immelt became chief, are now rated five tiers lower at A2 and trade at prices more consistent with a Baa rating, one notch above junk.
In response to this debacle, GE has repudiated its previous leadership with a zeal unprecedented in a company of its size and stature. Gone in the past 10 months are the CEO, the CFO (who was also a vice chair), two of the three other vice chairs, the head of the largest business, various other executives—and half the board of directors. The radical board shake-up “could be one of the most seminal events in the history of U.S. corporate governance,” says a longtime vendor and close student of GE.
Immelt declined to be interviewed for this article but sent Fortune a statement in which he cited accomplishments and said, “None of us like where the stock is today. I purchased $8 million of stock in my last year as CEO because I believe in the GE team. I love the company, and I urge them to start looking forward and win in the markets.”
Flannery’s strongest message is how completely he’s breaking with GE’s recent past. “The review of the company has been, and continues to be, exhaustive,” he told investors last October. Specifically: “We are evaluating our businesses, processes, [the] corporate [function], our culture, how decisions are made, how we think about goals and accountability, how we incentivize people, how we prioritize investments in the segments … global research, digital, and additive [manufacturing]. We have also reviewed our operating processes, our team, capital allocation, and how we communicate to investors. Everything is on the table … Things will not stay the same at GE.”
Inescapable conclusion: This place is an unholy mess.