With 120+ years of experience, Massachusetts-based General Electric (GE) is a global leader in providing renewable energy, power, aviation, and healthcare products and services. It has been on my list of the globe’s top companies for a long time, owing to its admirable capability to reinvent itself and deliver precisely what its customers need.
I’m pretty sure Hay Group, an international management consulting firm, agrees with me on this one, as it named this multinational conglomerate the ‘World’s Best Company for Leadership‘ for three consecutive years.
Besides, GE has a ton of other accomplishments under its belt, including being a Fortune 500 company for over two decades and leveraging breakthrough technology to avail some pretty remarkable inventions. Examples of the latter include x-ray machines, electric home appliances, and jet engines.
If you ask me, GE has played a significant world in shaping the modern world as it is today.
Interested in knowing why I think that?
Keep reading this GE Business history article to find out about its background, growth, and leaders.
GE Foundation and Early Beginnings
The story of GE starts in the late 1880’s with Thomas Edison, the legendary businessman who was always captivated by new inventions. This explains his massive interest in organizations such as the Edison Lamp Company, Edison Machine Works, Bergmann & Company, and Edison Electric Light Company, all related to electricity.
In 1889, Drexel, Morgan & Co., co-founded by JP Morgan, funded Edison’s research to help him merge his organizations. This led to the establishment of the Edison General Electric Company. In 1892, Thomson-Houston Electric Company and the latter merged to form The General Electric Company.
During its early stages, GE snowballed, opening new factories in the United States and acquiring other enterprises as time passed. One of the companies it attained was Rudolf Eickemeyer’s in New York in 1893. At the time, Charles Proteus Steinmetz, who went down in history as one of the most talented engineers and mathematicians, worked for it.
In the same year, GE began manufacturing lamps. And thanks to the soaring demand for electric lighting, these devices enabled the conglomerate to make a fortune within a short duration.
In 1896, GE and 11 other companies were listed on the newly-established Dow Jones, a stock market index of the most valuable companies in the United States. Impressively, it has been a part of it for over a century, although not consistently.
From 1902, GE ventured into various activities to grow its brand. For starters, it opened the Witton Engineering Works near Birmingham; it was its first ever purpose-built plant. It also began manufacturing telephones and established multiple agencies across Europe, Japan, India, South Africa, and Australia.
It’s also worth mentioning that in 1906, GE’s engineer, Ernst Alexanderson, began broadcasting the first voice radio in the world.
In 1910, GE manufactured the world’s first electric stove. A year later, it incorporated the National Electric Lamp Association (NELA) into its lighting enterprises and set up the latter’s headquarters in East Cleveland, Ohio. They have been in the same location since then.
Further Growth Amidst the World Wars
As time flew by, GE continued to achieve more success, especially after the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Items such as signal lamps, telephones, and radios were highly sought after. Being one of their largest manufacturers at the time, every nation wanted to be on the company’s good side.
As the war took place, GE became an international organization.
In 1917, it started making hermetically sealed fridges, which I discovered are still used in some homes today.
The conglomerate collaborated with Owen D. Young to establish Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1919, right after investing in Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America. This partnership was aimed at improving international radio communications.
Doubtlessly, this was an excellent move for GE as it later leveraged RCA for its radio sales.
GE started investing in television in 1927. By the 1990s, it had owned and operated several stations, including Denver-based KOA-TV (now known as KCNC-TV) and WSIX-TV (now known as WKRN) in Nashville. Unfortunately, it sold a majority of its broadcasting holdings later.
By 1945, when World War II ended, GE had founded GE Consumer Finance, invented the fluorescent lamp, “Invisible” glass, and new silicone chemistry. Besides, the company spent only a year building the first American jet engine and autopilot to ensure aircraft could maintain a continuous predetermined course.
In 1945, GE demonstrated the use of Radar for the first time, enabling vessels to travel up to twenty miles away despite the darkness and other hazards. Between 1965 and 2017, the organization established more companies and acquired others to provide TV and power generation services. These include:
- Lineage Power Holdings (2011)
- John Wood Group PLC’s Well Support Division (2011)
- Lufkin Industries (2013 – 2020)
Notably, while acquiring some of these organizations, GE has also had to sell some of its properties. A great example is its transportation-finance unit, bought by the Bank of Montreal in 2015.
Where is GE Now?
As of this writing, GE owns several subsidiaries, including:
- GE Additive
- GE Aviation
- GE Capital
- GE Digital
- GE Healthcare
- GE Power
- GE Lighting
- GE research
- GE Renewable Energy
In 2021, the conglomerate announced it would branch into three public organizations, focusing on three areas – energy, healthcare, and aerospace.
It plans to establish the first subsidiary of its healthcare division in 2023, followed by the energy division’s spinoff in 2024.
While conducting my research, I discovered that “What happened to GE?” is one of the most frequently asked questions about GE. If you’re among those with this inquiry, here’s a video I recommend as it has all the answers you’re looking for.
Unquestionably, GE was at the top about two decades ago. In 2001, its value surpassed all other companies worldwide, including Bill Gates’ Microsoft, Berkshire Hathaway, whose current CEO is Charlie Munger, Cisco Systems, Intel, Coca-Cola, and Verizon.
However, by 2017, GEs was the 11th most valuable company worldwide. And things have evidently gotten worse since then because it’s currently worth less than many other brands, such as Jeff Bezos’ Amazon, Microsoft, Elon Musk’s Tesla, Nvidia, and Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta.
So, what went wrong? Some factors contributing to GE’s downfall were massive debt and losses. Watch this video about GE’s history to find out more!
Here’s a brief video discussing GE’s history. If you’re curious about this conglomerate’s small beginnings and rise to glory, I suggest you spend the next seven minutes watching it. It explains the vision of the world-famous American inventor Thomas Edison and the discoveries he made over the years to lay GE’s strong foundation that made way for its incredible success.
GE Corporate Governance
I don’t think GE would have overcome all its challenges and achieved such tremendous success without its leaders.
Here are some of the professionals who’ve served as GE’s CEOs since the early 1900s:
- 1913 – 1922: Charles Albert Coffin
- 1922 – 1939, 1942–1945: Owen D. Young
- 1940 – 1942, 1945–1958: Philip D. Reed
- 1958 – 1963: Ralph Jarron Cordiner
- 1963 – 1972: Fred J. Borch
- 1972 – 1981: Reginald H. Jones
- 1981 – 2001: Jack Welch
- 2001 – 2017: Jeff Immelt
- 2017 – 2018: John L. Flannery
- 2018 – Today: Henry Lawrence “Larry” Culp, Jr
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Charity Ventures
GE understands how social responsibility works, explaining why it has taken the initiative to work on projects that benefit the community. Allow me to enlighten you about some of them.
As of this writing, GE offers a comprehensive radiology curriculum in conjunction with the Wayne State University School of Medicine and the Medical University of South Carolina. So far, it has donated Logiq E Ultrasound equipment worth more than $1M to these two educational facilities to aid the success of their programs.
Brand Marketing and Innovation Awareness
Based on my research, GE has always been keen on capitalizing on the power of marketing to promote awareness about the technology and pioneers such as itself.
For instance, in September 2011, it launched a content marketing campaign to share the experiences of innovators who’d created life-changing inventions. The strategy ran for about 1.5 years and comprised thirty 3-minute clips created by some of the best documentary film directors, including Jessica Yu, Albert Maysles, Gary Hustwit, and Steve James.
Eventually, the GE FOCUS FORWARD Short Films Big Ideas was launched at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011. Some of its most popular films were about revolutionary advancements in sectors such as food distribution, energy production, cancer research, and water treatment.
Additionally, in 2017, GE revealed that it had partnered with the professional basketball team Boston Celtics to have its logo featured on their jerseys.
Since renewable energy is among GE’s areas of specialization, I wasn’t stunned to learn it’s interested in conserving the environment. One of its notable initiatives in this sector is the establishment of “Ecomagination” in 2005. The program was meant to facilitate the creation of eco-friendly solutions revolving around the use of solar energy, efficient lighting, water purification, lower-emission aircraft engines, and hybrid automobiles.
In 2011, GE also contributed to environmental conservation by authorizing the use of Burbank-based eSolar’s solar thermal technology and launching its EV Solar Carport to power vehicles while providing clean energy.
Additionally, GE has been involved in various endevours to enhance power reliability and reforestation.
The 2022 Russian-Ukraine war had adverse effects, especially on those living in Ukraine at the time. In March, GE announced that it’d donate $4.5M to avail medical equipment and emergency funding for Ukrainian refugees and neighboring countries affected by the violence.
GE volunteers assembled at railway stations and border crossings to provide care packages to those in need.
Over the years, GE has been recognized at multiple events for its industry-leading performance and breakthrough inventions that have seen the world become a better place.
For instance, GE received a Clio award in 1981, thanks to its Soft White Light Bulbs commercial with the slogan “We Bring Good Things to Life”.
In 2013, this conglomerate bagged a National Jefferson Award for Outstanding Service by an international corporation.
GE was also recognized at the Delhi International Airport Limited (DIAL), where it won the ‘Engineering Service Provider of the Year’ award (2017 – 2018).
Notably, some of GE’s exceptional employees have also been appreciated for their discoveries that helped transform the globe. These include American chemist and engineer Irving Langmuir and Norwegian-American physicist Ivar Giaever, who won Nobel Prizes.
To my thinking, controversy is a part of running any successful organization. So, what has GE done to set tongues wagging? Let me fill you in!
Illegal Cartel Promotion
In the 1950s, illegal cartels were prevalent in the United States and Mexico. GE was accused of supporting the largest one at the time to raise funds to run its operations. Of course, this wasn’t a shocker as most companies operating at the time were recovering from World War II and badly needed finances.
Notably, 28 more companies and 45 professionals were accused of ‘white collar crime.’
Unfortunately, there’s no published info regarding what happened to GE following these allegations, so I can tell you how this story ended. The company never shut down, so it’s possible there was no plausible evidence linking it to the cartel.
Iraq Bribery Charges
In 2010, the SEC alleged that GE and its subsidiaries conspired with the Iraqi government to create a $3.6 million kickback scheme to win contracts to supply water purification equipment and medical devices.
GE paid more than $23 million to settle these charges, stating they wanted to resolve the issue without admitting or refuting the claims.
In my experience, bribery in the corporate world is pretty common, and most companies settle to avoid a lot of negative publicity or to lose more money.
In 2019, Harry Markopolos, the private investigator who unveiled Bernard Madoff’s $65 billion Ponzi scheme, accused GE of committing a $38.1bn accounting fraud. His 175-page report claimed that the over a century-old company concealed its losses, making its financial situation look worse.
In response, GE said that Markopolos’ allegations were misguided and unwarranted, alleging that he didn’t even confirm his facts before publishing his report. The conglomerate also added it wouldn’t entertain the distraction as it focused on its daily operations.
Frequently Asked Questions – GE Business History
Question: Is GE a reliable brand?
Answer: Yes. GE is a dependable company in my book. Its various products, such as home appliances, are top-rated, mainly because of their innovative features.
Question: What happened to GE in 2008?
Answer: In 2008, GE suffered the devastating economic effects of the financial crisis, indicating that the company was doubtlessly overstretched as its stock fell 42% that year. Warren Buffett, whose right-hand man is Charlie Munger at Berkshire Hathaway, invested $3 billion to stabilize the company, but it wasn’t enough to solve all of GE’s financial problems.
Question: Who are GE’s most significant competitors?
Answer: As of this writing, GE competes against a long list of companies, including Siemens AG, Hitachi Ltd. (Japan), Honeywell International Inc. (US), and 3M Company (US).
Question: Has Boeing used GE engines?
Answer: Yes. Boeing is known to install GE engines in its aircraft, especially those in the 747, 767, 777, and 787 categories.
Question: How profitable is GE?
Answer: In my view, GE is among the most lucrative energy, aerospace, and healthcare companies. Statistics show that its gross profit for the quarter ending in June 2022 was $5.402B. Besides, it also brought in a considerable annual profit in 2021.
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