A Crude Awakening for General Electric
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.”
GE soon plans to announce an $850 million equipment order from customers led by Eni Ghana Exploration & Production that will supply Offshore Cape Three Points, an underwater oilfield development off Ghana’s coast. The company is also developing environment-friendly technology with Norway’s Statoil, bolstering its relationship with a longtime buyer of GE’s subsea and other equipment and keeping pace as the industry adopts better energy-efficiency standards. “For us, this is about competitiveness fundamentally,” says Eldar Saetre, Statoil’s president and CEO.
Simonelli, 41, a possible successor to chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt, sees the downturn as an overdue chance for the industry to improve the efficiency of its products. His division is investing in new technologies, including sensors that allow users to monitor and maintain equipment remotely. With the resources of GE behind it, the oil division will continue to pursue acquisitions.
GE’s best hope in oil and gas may be at the bottom of the ocean. It already has a sizable presence providing flow control valves, wellheads, and other equipment for deep-water drilling work. But sales were hampered by the high cost of getting products to market and other problems. “There’s an opportunity for the industry to be much tighter with respect to executional efficiency,” says Rod Christie, CEO of GE Oil & Gas Subsea Systems. Simonelli is leading an effort to modularize components for subsea production to improve compatibility of the products, reduce costs, and improve flexibility in offshore production. This might generate a windfall for GE, says Nick Heymann, an analyst with William Blair. “It could be the most massively disruptive thing in one of the biggest markets,” he says. If Simonelli can pull it off, “he’s going to look like the guy who piloted Apollo 13 back home.”
The bottom line: Even as oil prices have plunged, General Electric is betting big on its oil and gas division.