Monday, November 13, 2017

It’s official: GE booting Transportation. (Meanwhile, the stock swoons)

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It’s official: GE booting Transportation. (Meanwhile, the stock swoons)

Monday the 13th at General Electric: The 125-year-old corporation, among the world’s oldest, announced a massive, aggressive downsizing and restructuring, a reduced dividend, and an in-the-works divestiture of its storied Transportation division, one of the world’s largest, most successful builders of railway locomotives.

GE stock nosedived (that’s just short of crashing) 8% following the announcement, prompting headlines like this one from CNBC:

“GE shares plunge 8% for biggest decline since housing recession after turnaround plan unveiled. General Electric announces it will cut its dividend in half as part of a broader corporate restructuring. It plans a renewed focus on health care, aviation and energy. CEO John Flannery apologizes on investor day for the company’s performance and says GE would be ‘more focused.’ The shares dropped 8% for their worst single-day decline since April 2009.”

The dividend cut is only GE’s second since the Great Depression nearly 100 years ago. GE also said it was cutting the number of seats on its board as part of what Flannery is calling “a reset year” in 2018. One wonders if any of those board cuts involve Trian Fund Management, the activist (do I smell a hedge fund?) investor known to putting the screws to Flannery to deliver short-term gains.

GE added it will be letting go 25% of its home office staff.

At this point, exactly what “more focused” means isn’t very clear.

“Today, GE announced that it will divest the Transportation business from its portfolio,” the corporation’s official announcement stated. “The Company is in the early stages of this process and exploring a multitude of possibilities that may include, among several options, creative approaches used to transition GE’s Consumer Finance business into Synchrony Financial or models like the Baker Hughes and GE Oil & Gas merger. This move is in line with GE’s broader efforts to divest $20 billion in assets over the next few years. The Transportation business remains committed to building on its strong culture of innovation, deep domain, world-class technology and digital solutions in a way that best positions the business for growth.”

Will someone please tell me what that last sentence really means (besides public relations malarkey)? If GE Transportation has “a strong culture of innovation, deep domain, and world-class technology,” then why, Mr. Flannery, are you so eager to dump it?

GE “has many strong divisions,” Flannery recently told the Wall Street Journal, but also “a number of other businesses that drain investment and management resources without the prospects for a substantial reward.”

Translation: This is corporate Darwinism, where only the “strong” have earned the right to survive. In GE Transportation’s case, the division isn’t strong enough for Flannery and the activist investors who have him dangling above a pot of boiling oil. And I don’t think top management has the savvy or experience or passion to deal with our industry’s often frustrating cyclicality involving locomotives and freight cars. That’s too bad, because GE Transportation has always been stocked with brilliant people who get things done. Click HERE for an example.

You want to be part of this industry? You have to be willing to work at it. To tough out the tough times. To roll with the cycles. To be focused on long-term value and growth, not short-term gains.

Just ask Warren Buffett. He knows. It’s why he bought BNSF.

Hey Mr. Buffett! I know a great locomotive builder you can buy if you’re interested. Lots of history. Good people. Great products. Innovative technology. Global reach. Talk to this Flannery character, when he isn’t watching his back. He’s looking to get out of a business he doesn’t understand or really care about.

Counting Monday the 13th’s 8% nosedive, GE shares so far have plummeted about 40% this year, erasing more than $115 billion in market value. GE Transportation employed about 10,000 at the beginning of this year, 2,000 fewer than 2016, and many good people have been axed since then.What’s going to happen to all those good people, the ones let go or who join whatever firm picks up the pieces?

They’ll continue making a difference, for some other company.

If that’s how top brass at GE feels about our industry, fine. We’re better off without you.

William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

With Railway Age since 1992, William C. Vantuono has broadened and deepened the magazine's coverage of the technological revolution that is so swiftly changing the industry. He has also strengthened Railway Age’s leadership position in industry affairs with the conferences he conducts, among them Next-Generation Train Control, Light Rail, and Rail Insights. He is the author or co-author or editor of several books, among them All About Railroading; John Armstrong’s The Railroad: What It Is, What It Does; Railway Age’s Comprehensive Railroad Dictionary; and Planning, Engineering, and Operating Light Rail, With Applications in New Jersey.

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