Editors' Pick: Originally published Feb. 29.
The Fairfield, Conn.-based conglomerate survived the Great Depression, buoying its appliance business during the downturn by offering financing for customers who could no longer afford stoves and refrigerators.
More than half a century later, when terrorists flew commercial airliners into the World Trade Center's twin towers on 9/11, GE was among the insurance providers covering the planes and buildings, reporting policy-related losses of about $575 million. Later, shipments of its jet engines dropped 20% as the shock of the attacks reverberated through the airline industry.
From 2001 to 2004, shipments of the company's gas turbines slid 65% after a power-generation bubble burst in the U.S. Four years later, during the financial crisis, the company's use of commercial paper to fund its mammoth lending business left it vulnerable to frozen credit markets.
"Through those cycles, the 'Big GE' protected the businesses and gave them strategic flexibility," CEO Jeffrey Immelt said Monday in his annual letter to investors. "That gives us confidence as we approach a difficult oil and gas cycle."
The 138-year-old company's experience and size leave it well-positioned, Immelt said, to cope with a slump of nearly 70% in oil prices, which will likely curb earnings at GE's Oil & Gas business by as much as 25% from 2014 through the end of this year.
"Like past cycles, the strength throughout GE is being transferred to our Oil & Gas business," the fourth-largest of GE's manufacturing divisions, he said. The unit accounted for a little more than 10% of fourth-quarter sales.
Already, the plummeting prices have hammered energy producers, raised concerns that they will default on loans to big banks and dragged down the Standard & Poor's 500 by 4.7 percent since the end of last year. Pundits have speculated that another recession may be in the works, though economists and regulators have said that's unlikely.
At GE, managers have responded by investing more in research and development and offering lower-cost options to oil and gas customers. The company also has the cash to invest in new assets as prices fall, and expects to use some of the extra $2.1 billion from renegotiating the sale of its appliance division for additional restructuring of Oil & Gas, nearly doubling this year's planned savings to $800 million.
That builds on a transformative 2015, when Immelt announced the sale of most of the GE Capital lending business that accounted for more than 40% of operating earnings and completed the $10 billion purchase of France-based Alstom's power business, GE's largest industrial acquisition.
Shrinking GE Capital, which weighed on the company's shares after the financial crisis, has helped GE climb 14% since the move was announced in April 2015, compared with declines of about 7% on both the broader S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
By the end of 2015, GE had struck deals to sell $157 billion of its lending portfolio, which helps position the company to return $100 billion to shareholders in cash and dividends through 2018, Immelt said. In the same period, it plans to grow earnings to more than $2 a share, from $1.31 last year, by buying back shares, growing operating profit and integrating the Alstom purchase, Immelt said.
Alstom will add 5 cents to earnings per share this year and as much as 20 cents a share by 2018, Immelt wrote in the letter. It "creates a more global and technical GE," he said.
That deal, and GE's sale of most of its lending portfolio, are part of the CEO's plan to refocus GE on its industrial roots, while expanding in industrial software through the Predix platform. Introduced in the second half of 2015, Predix lets GE, its customers and others develop apps that gather data from sensors on equipment such as wind turbines and locomotives and use it to optimize performance, saving billions of dollars.
"By the end of 2016, we expect it to have 200,000 assets under management, 100 GE applications and 20,000 developers creating many more applications," Immelt wrote.
The logic behind the strategy is simple, Immelt said. While the Internet has had a massive impact on consumer productivity and commerce -- with advances from digital superstores like Amazon tocheck deposits via mobile phone -- its impact on industrial markets is just now being realized.
By 2020, some "10,000 gas turbines, 68,000 jet engines, more than 100 million light bulbs and 152 million cars will be connected to the Internet," he wrote. "We have decided to generate and model this data ourselves -- both inside the company and with our customers."
Such digital-industrial capabilities will expand GE's growth rate, improve its profit margins and bring it closer to customers, Immelt wrote.
"Why GE?" he asked. "I assure you we didn't wake up one morning with 'software envy.' We have been investing in software and accumulating data for decades. Competing will not require big acquisitions. Rather, the technology required to compete is in our sweet spot. So, why not us?"
A signature app for what GE is labeling the "Industrial Internet" is its Digital Twin, which will create digital profiles of more than half a million industrial machines. Basically software models of pieces of equipment or processes, the profiles make it possible "to manage more precisely than we ever thought possible," Immelt said.
Already, the profiles have been used to save tens of millions of dollars on unnecessary overhauls for buyers of the GE90 jet engine and to minimize fuel consumption and gas emissions on the Evolution-model locomotive built by GE Transportation, he wrote.
"The data economy for the industrial world has arrived, and GE is in a position to lead it," Immelt said. "We enter it bringing decades of deep domain expertise about our industries and volumes of data about our machines and their processes that no one else can match. With this technical leadership, GE can become a Top 10 software company by 2020."