The downfall of America’s industrial giant is a cautionary tale for all big firms

ONE OF THE most intriguing questions in business is what happened to GE, a company once so dear in America that its near-collapse in 2018 beggared belief. It still limps on, but the suspects behind a destruction of $500bn in value over little more than 20 years are so many that the mystery feels like a whodunnit.


Does blame start with the late Jack Welch, boss from 1981 to 2001, who created the myth that GE could walk on water? Does it belong to Jeff Immelt, his successor for 16 years, who continued to peddle that illusion even as the waters rose treacherously around his—and the company’s—neck? Should it be shared by his short-lived successor, John Flannery? Or Larry Culp, the current boss, who has so far been unable to turn back the tide? And do the supposed guardians of corporate America—the boards, regulators, analysts, investors and CNBC talk-show hosts, none of whom can (along with Schumpeter) resist the temptation to anthropomorphise business success and failure—also bear responsibility?

是否先要向已故的杰克·韦尔奇(Jack Welch)追责?他在1981至2001年间担任老板,创造了GE“水上飘”的神话。或者应归咎于他的继任者杰夫·伊梅尔特(Jeff Immelt)?他执掌GE16年,期间继续兜售这种幻觉,尽管水已经极其危险地漫到了他和公司的脖子了。他那任期短暂的继任者约翰·弗兰纳里(John Flannery)是否也该一起背锅?现任老板拉里·卡尔普(Larry Culp)是不是也有份?目前为止他仍未能力挽狂澜。另外,美国企业界所谓的守护者——董事会、监管者、分析师、投资者和全国广播公司商业频道(CNBC)的脱口秀主持人——是否也得担责?他们当中没有一个人(本专栏作者也一样)能抵挡将商业成败人格化的诱惑。

Two Wall Street Journal reporters, Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann, have written a book, “Lights Out”, that seeks to find out what went awry. It twists and turns through almost 40 years of GE’s modern history in a way that is at times as bewildering as the conglomerate itself. But the thread that runs through consistently enough to prevent motion sickness comes from a phrase Mr Flannery used shortly before taking over from Mr Immelt in 2017: “No more success theatre.” For decades GE managers had an over-exalted sense of their own abilities, which led to narcissism, hubris and the bending, if not breaking, of accounting rules to hit their profit targets. This eclipsed any strategic vision they may have had.

《华尔街日报》的两位记者托马斯·格里塔(Thomas Gryta)和特德·曼恩(Ted Mann)合著的《熄灯》(Lights Out)一书试图找出哪里出了错。这本书迂回曲折地穿行于GE近40年的现代历史之中,有时读来简直和这家企业集团本身一样令人困惑。但一条主线令全书足够连贯,让读者不至于晕车。它来自弗兰纳里在2017年接替伊梅尔特的前不久说过的一句话:“不会再自导自演‘成功大戏’了。”几十年来,GE的管理者自视过高,导致自恋、傲慢,以及为达到利润目标不惜扭曲甚至破坏会计准则。就算他们真有什么战略眼光,也因为这样的行径黯然失色。

Welch set the tone. His tenure coincided with the dismantling of other conglomerates, such as AT&T. But he convinced investors that GE was the exception to the too-big-to-manage rule thanks to the brilliance of its executives. By slashing jobs, shutting laggard divisions and overseeing about 1,000 acquisitions, worth $130bn, over 20 years, he rejuvenated the company—and the reputation of American capitalism. Yet, as the book shows, his main contribution was building up GE Capital, the finance arm. It could borrow cheaply because of its AAA credit rating derived from GE’s industrial strength. Its success ensured that GE shares traded at a high price relative to earnings, helping Welch use stock to pay for takeovers. And it helped smooth group-wide earnings in opaque ways, which may have made it easier to hit Welch’s exacting profit targets.

定下基调的是韦尔奇。在他任职期间,美国电话电报公司(AT&T)等其他企业集团纷纷解体。但他说服投资者相信,GE的管理层才华过人,所以公司是“大到没法管理”这条规律的例外。20年间,他裁员,关闭拖后腿的部门,并主导了约1000笔收购,价值总计1300亿美元,从而重振了公司——以及美国资本主义的声誉。然而正如这本书所示,他的主要贡献是建立了金融部门通用电气资本(GE Capital)。它能以低利率借款,因为它借助GE的工业实力获得了AAA信用评级。它的成功确保了GE的高市盈率,从而帮助韦尔奇用股票支付收购。这也有助于用不透明的方式平滑整个集团的收益,可能令实现韦尔奇艰巨的利润目标变得容易了些。

GE Capital eventually came to drag the company down. Within months of Mr Immelt’s taking over in 2001, the scandal surrounding Enron, an energy giant, drew scrutiny of earnings-enhancing accounting tricks, forcing GE to show it was playing by the book. Mr Immelt failed to tame it in time for the financial crisis of 2007-09, which became a near-death experience for GE. For years afterwards, the perception of riskiness weighed on its share price, encouraging Mr Immelt to move away from financial services in order to reinvigorate the industrial heart of the company: jet engines, power turbines and health care. Yet after he launched the sale of much of GE Capital in 2015, the relief was short-lived. A disastrous $10bn acquisition of the power and grid businesses of Alstom, a French competitor, the same year would become Mr Immelt’s biggest mistake. Problems in GE’s power business have dogged the company since. They contributed to the huge cash crunch that culminated in Mr Flannery’s dethronement in October 2018, a mere 14 months after he became boss.

GE Capital最终拖累了整个公司。2001年伊梅尔特接手后的几个月内,围绕能源巨头安然的丑闻令美化收益的会计伎俩受到审视,迫使GE表明自己都是照章行事。伊梅尔特没能在2007年至2009年的金融危机爆发前及时控制住局面,结果令GE经历了一次濒死体验。多年后,对风险的感知令GE的股价承压,促使伊梅尔特放弃金融服务业务,以重振公司的工业心脏:喷气发动机、动力涡轮和医疗保健。2015年他开始出售GE Capital的大部分股份,但只短暂地缓解了局面。同年,GE以100亿美元收购法国竞争对手阿尔斯通(Alstom)的电力和电网业务,这起灾难性的交易日后将成为伊梅尔特最大的失误。自那以后,GE电力业务的问题一直困扰着公司。这些问题造成了巨大的现金短缺,最终导致弗兰纳里在2018年10月被免职,在位仅14个月。

The book puts most of the blame for GE’s woes on Mr Immelt, a salesman who appeared to treat it more as a company to sell to investors than a maker of products to sell to the world. He used Botox-like gimmicks, produced by his biker-jacket-clad marketing sidekick, Beth Comstock, to persuade markets that GE was no hoary industrialist but a digital innovator. But he came up with little that was fresh or exciting. He wasted money on dinosaur industries like oil and gas. He gave away cash via share buy-backs. And he betrayed hints of pharaonic delusion: when he travelled on business, his retinue reportedly sometimes included not one but two company jets.

这本书把GE的不幸主要归咎于伊梅尔特。这个“推销员”似乎更多地将GE视作一家需要被推销给投资者的公司,而不是向全世界销售各种产品的制造商。他使出了给老黄瓜刷绿漆的把戏——这是他那位爱穿机车皮夹克的营销助手贝丝·康斯托克(Beth Comstock)想出来的——好让市场相信GE不是老朽的实业家,而是个数字创新者。但他没有得出什么新鲜或令人兴奋的东西。他把钱浪费在了石油和天然气等“恐龙产业”上,并通过股票回购来往外撒钱。他还暴露出帝王般的作风:据传他出差时,随从人员之多,有时要用到两架而不是一架公司专机。

Still, blaming one man, or even several men, for the collapse of an empire as closely watched as GE is a bit glib. It is, using Tolstoy’s conceit in “War and Peace”, like attributing the fall of Moscow only to Napoleon and Alexander. Bigger factors were at play.


Start with size. Almost every boss wants to run a bigger company. Investors often applaud size for its own sake. But the more complicated a business becomes, the greater the information gap between managers and markets. That makes it easier to disguise what is really going on. Next is America’s cult of the chairman-chief executive. When both roles are held by one man (they are mostly men), underlings and boards find it harder to challenge big decisions, even when potentially ruinous.


A third common problem is stockmarket mythmaking. Ms Comstock’s approach to digging GE out of a hole was to, as she put it, “pick a simple story…and tell it again, and again”. Analysts, business editors, even the occasional columnist, fall for this far too often. In GE’s case, this included articles with titles likening the company to a whizzy startup. Better to have kept a closer eye on its old-economy power division, the company’s real Achilles heel.


Mr Immelt, with the turbine blade, in the private jet


Ultimately, firms are never fully in charge of their own destinies. The internet, the rise of China, the financial crisis and greener energy all played a role in GE’s downfall. Second-quarter results on July 29th revealed that covid-19 has halted Mr Culp’s rescue mission, hurting GE’s most profitable industrial businesses, especially aviation. As businesses age, events will inevitably wear them down. To forestall that, companies have few better options than to perfect what they are good at and embrace the simple life—even if this makes for less suspense. ■