GE's slimmer, trimmer future

General Electric's deal to sell off NBC Universal is part of its strategy to trim down to its core infrastructure business. The last conglomerate may be a conglomerate no more.

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By David Goldman, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- General Electric -- the last of the giant diversified conglomerates -- has adopted a strategy that was once unthinkable: narrowing its focus. It's a risky move for a company that had counted on its diversity as a hedging tool. But it's also one that may pay off in spades.

By selling off media and entertainment division NBC Universal to Comcast (CMCSA, Fortune 500), GE is left with its core infrastructure business, which includes energy, transportation and health care units, as well as finance arm GE Capital and some consumer and industrial businesses. GE Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt said on Thursday that the Comcast deal will allow GE to "play offense" by reinvesting in infrastructure, which performed very well during the recession.

That would mark a nice shift from GE's defensive play, which was led by its flagging media division. NBC Universal's profit has plunged 27% so far in 2009, compared to a 14% rise in earnings from its energy infrastructure businesses. Unlike NBC (and GE Capital for that matter), GE's infrastructure unit helped the company weather the economic storm.

GE (GE, Fortune 500) bought NBC in 1985 for $6.3 billion to act as a hedge against its industrial businesses. With businesses in seemingly every sector, GE had counted on that part of its company to always do well no matter what the economic climate.

But analysts say holding onto NBC became too risky for GE, as the changing media landscape made it difficult to know how to invest. Internet media has soared, but it remains unclear how it will be monetized. Cash flow margins at NBC's cable networks have been solid, but its broadcast channels have just a slim 5% margin.

"They're getting out of a market at a good price where it is unclear whether they're going to succeed," said Ed Zabitsky, analyst with ACI Research. "When you're uncertain about a unit and you can sell it for a tremendous amount, you can take out a tremendous amount of risk."

Dialing back risk, dialing up growth. Many say GE has taken on enough risk by holding onto its finance unit, GE Capital. Once a driver of 40% of GE's operating profit, GE Capital has gotten slammed by the subprime mortgage crisis and now contributes just more than 14% of GE's earnings.

Analysts say that the main reason GE isn't shopping GE Capital around is that GE won't be able to get top dollar for the unit because of the lingering effects of the credit crisis.

Also, unlike NBC, GE Capital actually has some synergies with its core business. In addition to its mortgage and lending business, GE Capital finances the parent company's infrastructure purchases, and it offers financing to GE's vendors as well.

Even in its heyday in the 1990s, when NBC was making upwards of $400 million a year for GE, the media company had no other synergies with GE's other businesses. Now that NBC is slumping, GE decided it was the right time to unload it.

"As management reshapes GE, there's clearly going to be a focus on the classic infrastructure businesses that have been its cash cows, namely energy, transportation, health care," said Nick Heymann, analyst at Sterne Agee & Leach. "Everything else that's left will be a facilitator for one of those core businesses."

Heymann said the businesses that GE will decide to hold onto will all be focused on growth. GE believes that its infrastructure and related businesses have the best chance to succeed because of those units' strong positions in the fast-growing emerging markets.

"This deal gives us tremendous flexibility at exactly the right moment and time," said Immelt on a conference call with investors. "There are lots of global opportunities in infrastructure as we think about the company going forward."

The death of the conglomerate. Experts say GE's decision to unload risk and focus on what it does best puts a nail in the coffin of the conglomerate idea.

"The whole idea of conglomerate is really lousy," said Peter Cohan, a venture capitalist, management consultant and GE shareholder. "You can't hedge cash flows of one business from another, because they can't predict how they'll interact."

Cohan said that over time, companies found the notion that they could offset risk from one industry by owning a business in another was overly simplistic, as there is no way to ensure that one business will succeed when another fails.

Instead, according to Zabitsky, GE and other companies are now opting to increase their capital reserves to offset risk instead of making non-core acquisitions.

But not everyone agrees that GE's strategy is the best.

"GE had enough balance in its business that if something got disrupted, there would be something else there to save the day," said Rick Munarriz, senior analyst at The Motley Fool. "I don't necessarily agree with its decision to trim down and focus on its core. This isn't the time to shrink, this is the time to take advantage of everyone else shrinking." To top of page

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