Key Takeaways from General Electric (GE) History

  • Formation: Founded in 1892 through a merger of Edison Electric Light Company and Thomson-Houston Electric Company.
  • Innovation: Significant contributions include the first jet engine, electrical appliances, and advancements in nuclear energy.
  • Leadership: Jack Welch era marked by aggressive expansion and innovation, followed by a controversial management style.
  • Challenges: Faced significant setbacks during the 2008 financial crisis, leading to restructuring and refocusing on core businesses.
  • Current Structure: Splitting into three separate public companies: GE Aerospace, GE HealthCare, and GE Vernova (energy).
  • Ownership: 76% of shares held by institutional investors; Vanguard, Capital Research Global Investors, and BlackRock are the largest shareholders.
  • CEO: H. Lawrence Culp, Jr. is the current CEO, known for his previous success at Danaher and efforts to stabilize GE.

The History of General Electric: A Quick Overview

General Electric, commonly known as GE, is one of the most influential and successful companies of all time.

It’s significant not just in the business world but in our everyday lives.

Whether you’re a business owner, a marketer, a student, or just someone inspired by business stories, the turbulent history of General Electric has a lot to reveal about the ups and downs of multinational conglomerates.

Our experts at Business2Community compiled the most relevant information from trusted sources to bring you this comprehensive history of GE, as well as a look at what the future holds for the company and its spin-offs.

A History of General Electric – Key Dates

  • 1892: The General Electric Company was formed through the merger of the Edison Electric Light Company and Thomson-Houston Electric Company.
  • 1942: Entering the aviation market, GE’s I-A jet engine was used in the first successful military jet made in the US.
  • 1981: Lauded-yet-controversial CEO Jack Welch was appointed, signaling a new era for GE’s portfolio and management style.
  • 2008: As the global financial crisis unfolded, GE’s financial flaws were revealed and its stock price fell by 57% over the year.
  • 2023: GE HealthCare is formed as GE begins to divide into three public companies that will carry its core business into the future.

Who Owns General Electric? 

Around 76% of General Electric shares are held by institutional investors. The largest institutional shareholders of General Electric are Vanguard, Capital Research Global Investors, and BlackRock. The top individual insider shareholders are current CEO H. Lawrence Culp, Jr., Scott Strazik, and Russel Stokes.

Yahoo Finance reports that at the time of writing, 2,441 institutions hold 76.21% of General Electric Company’s 1.09 billion shares outstanding.

General Electric Company Institutional Shareholders

0.21% of shares are held by individual insiders. The company’s Chairman and CEO, H. Lawrence Culp, Jr., is the individual insider with the greatest shareholding. He owns a total of 2.08 million shares, representing 0.19% of the company’s total shares outstanding.

According to GE’s 2023 Annual Report, there were approximately 260,000 shareholder accounts on record as of January 2024.

Around 23% of GE shares are held by the general public, with a further 0.13% belonging to private investors.

General electric logo neon sign

Who is the General Electric (GE) CEO?

H. Lawrence Culp, Jr., is the Chairman and CEO of GE and CEO of GE Aerospace. He joined GE’s Board of Directors in April 2018 and was appointed CEO of GE in October 2018, making him the first outsider to run the company.

Culp was originally awarded a four-year contract with a compensation package worth up to $21 million per year, with extra bonuses tied to stock price increases, CNBC reported in 2018. He was given a two-year contract extension in 2020, but due to push-back from shareholders on the stock award element, he agreed in 2021 to reduce this portion.

This saw Culp’s total compensation drop by more than 60% from $22.7 million in 2021 to $8.2 million in 2022.

GE CEO Larry Culp

Culp earned a bachelor’s degree in Economics from Washington College and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Before joining GE, Culp had been President and CEO of Danaher since 2001. He has appeared multiple times on Barron’s Top CEOs list, most recently in 2023.

Culp has also held the role of Chairman of GE HealthCare since its spinoff from GE in January 2023.

A History of General Electric Company CEOs

Here is a full history of the CEOs of General Electric Company, from its founding up to the present day:

CEO Tenure
Charles A. Coffin 1892-1922
Owen D. Young 1922-1939
Philip D. Reed 1939-1942
Owen D. Young 1942-1945
Philip D. Reed 1945-1958
Ralph J. Cordiner 1958-1963
Gerald L. Philippe 1963-1967
Fred J. Borsch 1967-1972
Reginald H. Jones 1972-1981
Jack Welch 1981-2001
Jeff Immelt 2001-2017
John L. Flannery 2017-2018
H. Lawrence (Larry) Culp Jr. 2018-Present

Jack Welch, born John Francis Welch Jr., is one of the company’s most notable CEOs. Having worked his way up the ranks from his position as a junior chemical engineer, he became the company’s youngest CEO at age 46. Welch would also turn out to be the company’s most important CEO, driving exorbitant growth during his tenure.

According to a company profile, Welch took GE’s market value from $14 million in 1980 to more than $410 billion when he retired.

President Trump greets Jack Welch GE CEO

However, there was some controversy regarding his management techniques, which resulted in mass layoffs between 1980 and 1985. He also pioneered the “vitality curve” or “rank-and-yank” system which sees employees ranked against their coworkers, and the worst-performing 10% fired.

These practices earned him the nickname “Neutron Jack”, with reference to the neutron bomb, a name that President Trump used when he paid tribute to Welch upon his death in 2020.

Growth and Development of General Electric

The rich history of General Electric is woven with the story of modern America, for better or worse. Here’s the story of GE and how it reached where it is today.

1878-1892: Edison General Electric Company and Thomson-Houston Electric Company

The history of General Electric began in 1878 when Thomas Edison founded the Edison Electric Light Company to market his incandescent lamp and other products.

In 1889, this and several of Edison’s other companies were merged to become Edison General Electric Company. One of the companies was Edison Machine Works, a large electric motor plant, which would later become the site of GE’s headquarters.

Meanwhile, Elihu Thomson and Edwin Houston founded the American Electric Company, which in 1882 was bought by Charles A. Coffin and renamed to Thomson-Houston Electric Company.

Both electrical companies were developing and manufacturing electric lighting and transportation, as well as exploring other uses for electricity.

1892: General Electric Company Founded

On April 15, 1892, the Edison Electric Light Company and Thomson-Houston Electric Company merged to form the General Electric Company.

The merger, which was managed by Drexel, Morgan & Co., took place in New York. Charles A. Coffin became GE’s first president, and the company was headquartered in Schenectady, New York.

In the same year, GE began trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

GE desk fan from circa 1914

Thomas Edison stepped down from the board in 1893 and sold all his shares in GE, but he remained involved as a consultant.

In 1896, General Electric became one of the 12 original companies to be included in the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) – an indicator of economic conditions in the United States.

1890s – 1930s: Expansion and Diversification

In the late 19th and early 20th Century, the General Electric Company continued to innovate with electricity and expand into new sectors.

A General Electric locomotive using GE power

Some notable milestones during this time were:

  • 1893: GE produces the first commercially successful electric locomotive.
  • 1896: Elihu Thomson invents the Thomson X-ray Machine.
  • 1900: General Electric Research Laboratory is launched, becoming the first industrial research laboratory in the US. In 1999, the company rebrands as GE Global Research and opens a new facility in Bangalore, India. Other research facilities have been opened in Shanghai, Munich, Rio Di Janeiro, and Oklahoma City, later being discontinued as part of the 2017 cost cuts.
  • 1905: GE produces its first electric toaster, the first of many kitchen appliances designed to make life easier for its customers.
  • 1905: Recognizing an opportunity to support smaller businesses with capital and cash flow, GE forms the Electric Bond and Share Co.; the precursor of GE’s Commercial Finance division.
  • 1906: The first ever voice radio broadcast is made on Christmas Eve on a device using a high-frequency alternator designed by GE engineer Ernst Frederick Werner Alexanderson.
  • 1912: GE’s newly founded plastics department begins manufacturing molded plastic parts made from phenolic resins. These were to be used as insulation materials for its appliances.
  • 1918: GE produces the first commercially successful diesel-electric locomotive for the Jay Street Connecting Railroad in New York.
  • 1919: The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) is founded by GE and several other companies. RCA went on to create the broadcasting network the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in 1926. GE is forced to withdraw in 1930 due to antitrust violations.
  • 1927: A signal broadcast from GE’s WGY station in New York makes the first home television reception.
  • 1932: GE reacts to the Great Depression by allowing consumers to purchase GE electrical appliances on credit through GE Credit Corporation, which later becomes GE Consumer Finance and then GE Capital.
  • 1939: GE physicist Katharine Burr Blodgett invents “invisible glass”, technology that is still used today on camera lenses and eyeglasses.

1940-1980: World War II and Post-War Growth

GE played a significant role in supporting the Allied forces during World War II by manufacturing critical equipment such as aircraft engines, radar systems, and 300,000 turbo superchargers for use in fighter and bomber engines.

GE technology also contributed heavily to the US Navy during this time.

It’s estimated that three-quarters of the Navy’s total propulsion and auxiliary turbine horsepower used during World War II was supplied by GE or its contractors, according to a report in the Daily Gazette. This was equivalent to 27 million horsepower of propulsion.

GE also worked on two-thirds of the US submarines produced between 1935 and the end of the war with 174 units in total.

Here are some other ways that GE technologies assisted during World War II:

  • 1940: A radar system developed by GE inventors Chester Rice and Dr. Albert Hull helps British troops win the Battle of Britain.
  • 1941: GE builds the first jet engine in the US, the I-A.
  • 1942: The I-A engine is used in America’s first successful military jet, the Bell XP-59 Airacomet. The success of this top-secret project leads the company to invest heavily in its engine production business over the next decade.
  • 1942: The GE engineering team designs and manufactures a heated flying suit that could protect flight crew from extreme temperatures. They drew on technology from their electric blankets to do this.

After the war, the company experienced substantial growth as it capitalized on the economic boom and technological advancements of the post-war era. However, this is also the era when several GE controversies and scandals began to emerge.

GE electric washer advertisement

GE continued to innovate in the home appliances market with a wide array of products, including its first completely automatic clothes washer and two-door refrigerator-freezer combination, both launched in 1947.

GE’s J47 jet engine first flew in 1948 and later became the most-produced jet engine in history, with more than 30,000 units assembled.

The Korean War boosted demand for these engines, leading GE to open a second manufacturing plant in Lockland, Ohio (now the headquarters of GE Aerospace). In just 20 months, employment boomed from 1,200 to 10,000 people.

GE power J47 jet engines

In 1955, GE established its Atomic Power Equipment Department and began to manufacture nuclear power reactors and boiling water reactors.

The Mark 1 reactor was developed in the 1960s and offered as a cheaper alternative to other models, but several people raised concerns about the safety of the system design in the following years.

Some even resigned from their jobs because they believed it was flawed. It was this reactor that was involved in the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi plant disaster. However, it’s important to note that while the reactor was clearly not completely safe, it only melted down because of damage from a massive tsunami.

In 1961, GE was the largest of 29 companies indicted by the Justice Department for price fixing of electrical equipment. The company was ordered to pay fines of $437,500, with a further $54,500 of fines for various individuals within the company.

GE was also heavily involved with the development and production of various products and materials used in NASA’s Apollo missions.

Between 1961 and 1972, 6,000 GE employees worked on the Apollo program to develop the silicone rubber used in moonwalking boots and to build radio command and guidance equipment. It was also Lexan, an impact-resistant plastic developed by a GE scientist in 1953, that was used for the astronauts’ visors.

Astronaut wearing GE Lexan helmet

8th June 1971 was the date of the first General Electric stock split, specifically a 2-for-1 stock split.

1981-2001: The Jack Welch Era

Jack Welch, who served as CEO from 1981 to 2001, is often credited with transforming GE into a highly efficient and diversified conglomerate.

His goal was to shift the company into emerging markets and industries while keeping operations lean and cutting off those that were not performing. GE made around 600 acquisitions under Welch’s leadership.

GE former CEO Jack Welch

However, his tenure was also the subject of some controversy, in part because of his aggressive management style that created a culture of fierce competition and short-term performance among staff. This, combined with GE’s increasing dependence on its finance operations, set it up for a huge fall during the 2008 financial crisis.

Let’s look at some key moments from GE’s timeline under Jack Welch:

  • 1986: GE re-acquires RCA for a cash sum of $6.28 billion. GE’s primary motivation was to acquire the NBC television network and the company’s defense-related businesses, and it quickly begins to sell off other parts of the business.
  • 1987: GE disposes of RCA Global Communications Inc., the NBC Radio Network, and its 50% interest in RCA Records.
  • 1987: Several of GE’s air conditioner plants are closed down or sold.
  • 1988: GE sells the rights to manufacture consumer electronics products under the RCA and GE brands to Thomson Consumer Electronics and receives some of Thomson’s medical businesses in return.
  • 1989: A joint venture is announced between General Electric and the General Electric Company P.L.C., a formerly unrelated British manufacturing company. This move places both companies in a stronger position to target the European markets for consumer products, medical equipment, and electrical distribution equipment.
  • 1989: NBC forms CNBC to broadcast news to cable television subscribers.
  • 1992: GE builds the Mars Observer for NASA, to map the planet’s surface and study its geology.
  • 1995: Company revenue reaches $70 billion and its market value exceeds $100 billion for the first time.
  • 1997: GE undertakes its fifth 2-for-1 stock split since 1971.
  • 1997: GE records charges of over $2.3 billion in its annual report, the largest of which came from the failure of the GE90 aircraft engine, costing the company $275 million due to higher-than-expected development and manufacturing costs. Despite this, the company achieves record profits of $8.2 billion in the same year.
  • 1999: Jack Welch is named Fortune’s Manager of the Century.
  • 2000: On August 28, GE stock prices rise to an all-time high of $363.30 following a 3-for-1 stock split in May.
  • 2000: GE announces plans to acquire Honeywell, another multinational American company in the aerospace industry, for $42 billion. Although this merger is eventually approved by US regulators, it gets blocked by the EU because of antitrust regulations.

history of general electric stock prices

2002-2011: Financial Services Expansion and Challenges

Throughout the late 20th century and early 21st century, GE Capital became a significant contributor to the company’s earnings as Welch’s chosen successor, Jeffrey R. Immelt, attempted to continue reshuffling the business and stabilize share prices.

Stocks began to recover after dropping to $134.81 in January 2003. However, during the 2008 financial crisis, GE faced tremendous challenges due to its exposure to the financial services sector, leading to significant restructuring efforts.

  • 2004: GE Consumer Finance acquires WMC, a lender of subprime residential mortgage loans. The company was later subject to a $1.5 billion penalty for approving loans to borrowers who did not meet certain criteria, simply to achieve their targets.
  • 2004: GE settles with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) over failure to properly disclose retirement benefits provided to Jack Welch, including a private jet, personal security, and a New York apartment.
  • 2007: GE Money records a profit of $4.3 billion, up from just $0.6 billion in 1997. GE Commercial Finance records a profit of $6 billion, up from $1.5 billion in 1997.
  • 2008: During the year, as a result of the unfolding financial crisis, GE’s share price falls by over 57%, from $222.78 on 1 January to $95 on 31 December.
  • 2008: Warren Buffet invests $3 billion through his company Berkshire Hathaway Inc. to help GE stay afloat. The rescue deal, which saw him receive stocks in return, netted Buffet around $1.5 billion profit over its lifetime.
  • 2009: GE’s market cap dips to below $90 billion on February 27, down from $486 billion in May 2001.
  • 2009: After an SEC investigation into accounting fraud that misled investors in 2002-2003, GE pays $50 million to settle charges without accepting or denying them.
  • 2011: GE sells its controlling interest in NBC, and in 2013 Comcast acquires the remaining interest.
  • 2011: GE Capital Retail Bank completes the purchase of MetLife Bank, taking on approximately $6.4 billion in bank deposits.

Market cap history of General Electric

2012-2024: Restructuring and Focus on Core Businesses

As the world began to recover from the 2008 crisis, GE was left to pick up the many pieces of its company and decide which were worth keeping.

It continued to sell off parts of the company, instead focusing on those that had the most growth potential.

  • 2014: GE announces that it is selling its appliance business to Swedish company Electrolux for $3.3 billion. The deal is later called off in 2015 because of opposition from US antitrust regulators.
  • 2015: Immelt announces plans to sell off most of GE Capital over the next two years. All that remain are selected commercial financial services.
  • 2016: GE eventually announces a deal to sell its appliance business to Chinese manufacturer Qingdao Haier Co., Ltd. for $5.4 billion.
  • 2017: GE’s quarterly dividend is halved from 24 cents per share to 12 cents per share.
  • 2017: GE merges its oil and gas business with Baker Hughes, which remained under the control of GE until it announced in 2020 that it would sell its remaining shares over the next 3 years.
  • 2018: A further dividend cut takes the quarterly payout to just 1 cent per share, saving the company almost $4 billion per year.
  • 2018: GE is removed from the Dow Jones index – the last of the original companies listed upon its creation in 1907.
  • 2019: GE sells GE Transportation to Wabtec after 102 years of ownership.
  • 2020: The COVID-19 pandemic hit GE’s aviation business particularly hard. This industry had accounted for over a third of GE’s total revenue in 2019, their annual report reveals.
  • 2021: GE undertakes a reverse stock split of 8:1, reducing the number of outstanding shares from around 8.8 billion to 1.1 billion. It does this to better represent the size of the company and give “a clearer reflection of the GE of the future, not the past”.

General electric revenue by industry, 2017-19

In November 2021, GE announced that it was dividing its operations into three publicly traded companies. In July 2022, it revealed that these three public companies would be:

  • GE Aerospace (aviation)
  • GE HealthCare (healthcare)
  • GE Vernova (energy – with a focus on decarbonization)

GE HealthCare was the first to launch in January 2023. GE Vernova is due to launch on April 2, 2024, when it officially splits from GE Aerospace. Shareholders of GE stock will receive 1 share in GE Vernova for every 4 shares held in GE.

In this Bloomberg podcast, you can hear GE CEO Larry Culp and GE Vernova CEO Scott Strazik discuss the future of the business:

The General Electric logo, known as the Monogram, consists of the scripted initials ‘GE’ encircled by a ring with four decorative swirls.

GE building displaying the monogram logo

This iconic logo has remained almost unchanged since the 1890s, when it first appeared on a pendant dangling from a ceiling fan.

The exact origins of the GE logo are unknown, but some suggest the four swirls represent the blades of a fan, while others draw a likeness between the flow of the letters and the flow of electricity.

An advertising campaign in 1923 described the logo as “the initials of a friend”, playing on the idea that GE’s electrical appliances and devices were a helping hand to humans.

This echos the sentiment of a quote from Thomas Edison:

I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others.

GE logo evolution

Since then, there have only been minor changes to the thickness of the lines and the shape of the swirls. Until 2004, the logo only appeared in black and white, but a redesign by agency Wolff Olins in 2004 rendered it in a medium blue to make the company “warmer and more relatable”.

As GE splits into three separate entities, it retains the famous monogram but introduces three new colors: Navy blue for GE Aerospace, purple for GE HealthCare, and mint green for GE Vernova. This reinforces the fact that “they will always share the same DNA”, the company says.

The Future of General Electric

It’s fair to say that General Electric’s heyday has been and gone, but the company is moving forward with a clear vision for the future and a focus on leaner operating models.

Share prices have been on the rise since mid-2022 and are close to returning to their 2016-7 levels.

The company’s jet engines still power three-quarters of commercial flights, which take off every two seconds, according to a 2023 company presentation.

The history of General Electric has been turbulent, and it remains to be seen whether GE will be able to shake off its reputation as a conglomerate and its involvement with past controversies as it moves forward with its separate Aerospace, HealthCare, and Vernova (energy) businesses and returns to its roots of innovating technologies to offer solutions to the world’s problems.

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