A Crude Awakening for General Electric


Its energy division will cut jobs and buy companies


by Richard Clough

Not long ago, oil looked like a black gold mine for General Electric. The company known for toaster ovens and lightbulbs wrapped up a three-year, $10 billion buying spree in 2013 to bolster the growing oil and gas equipment unit that helped GE recover from the financial crisis. The company bulked up with the expectation that crude prices would remain at about $100 a barrel for years.

These days, with the price of oil 40 percent lower than six months ago, energy companies are buying less drilling and processing equipment. The industry plans to slash spending by $40 billion and cut 100,000 jobs globally. GE’s oil unit is cutting costs and laying off employees, too. In December the company warned investors that the oil and gas division in 2015 could face its first sales decline—of as much as 5 percent—in five years. “I am not being Pollyannaish in any way,” says Jeff Bornstein, GE’s chief financial officer. “It’s going to be a very tough orders year, and we’re going to see an impact.”

How GE’s oil division navigates the choppy market will determine the company’s fortunes for years. The $19 billion oil division, now GE’s third-largest manufacturing division, accounts for 12 percent of GE’s revenue and almost 20 percent of industrial sales, up from only 4 percent a decade ago. Oil and gas became a centerpiece of a massive portfolio restructuring following the financial crisis, when the company sold portions of its finance arm and the consumer unit that made appliances. GE looked to industrial sales to boost shares that fell 30 percent in the past decade—the only Dow Jones industrial average stock that’s down in that time span.

Given the challenges, the oil unit is trying to grab market share as it introduces more technologically advanced products and attempts to buy weaker competitors. “A lot of people are saying, ‘This is a hard time’ and ‘What’s going to happen?’ ” says Lorenzo Simonelli, president and chief executive officer of GE Oil & Gas. “This is an opportunity.”

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