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?
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…