The latest history of General Electric runs more than 700 pages, and “there is an air of finality to it,” said Kaushik Viswanath in Fast Company. GE, the world’s most valuable company as recently as 2005, narrowly escaped bankruptcy during the subsequent financial crisis, has never fully recovered, and will be broken up into three smaller entities beginning in early 2023. William Cohan, who has previously written acclaimed histories of Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs, makes GE’s story fascinating from the start, when the company was created in an 1892 bank- engineered merger that swallowed several of Thomas Edison’s business ventures. The heart of this “riveting, magisterial work of business history,” though, is a study in contrasts between Jack Welch, the CEO who captained GE’s final run of glory, and Jeff Immelt, steward of the post-2001 great decline.
When Welch spoke to Cohan about Im melt’s tenure, his verdict was “vitriolic in the extreme,” “I f—ed up,” he said through tears, expressing remorse for choosing Immelt as his successor. But it was, of course, the celebrated Welch who from 1981 to 2001 had rendered GE vulnerable by building up its financial services arm until lending and the buying and selling of smaller companies was nearly half the business. Immelt wanted to shrink GE Capital relative to the divisions that had once given the world the light bulb and the jet engine, which was “a good, back-to-the- heritage instinct.” But he didn’t really understand how overleveraged GE Capital had become. The breakup saga that followed for GE “must count as one of the greatest dramas in business history,” and Cohan’s “tour de force” volume fittingly frames the story as a morality tale about the damage done to U.S. capitalism by financialization.
Cohan can be guilty of history writing that merely consists of “one damned fact after another,” He’s “more at home chronicling Jack Welch’s Mad Men antics,” such as picking up women at bars, than in constructing a story that illuminates the way GE, across more than a century, changed shape in harmony with the shifts in the capitalist ideology. It was a home of inventors that morphed into a monopolistic giant gorging on government contracts. It was liberal- internationalist when D.C. was liberal- internationalist. Though “Cohan is not entirely uninterested in the question of how GE fit into the ideological life of the country, he doesn’t dig deep,” yet that’s where the most interesting material lies.