Jeffrey Immelt is stepping down as chairman and chief executive of General Electric Co., bringing to an end a tumultuous 16-year tenure in which he dramatically reshaped the manufacturing powerhouse but failed to win over Wall Street.
Amid mounting pressure from activist investor Trian Fund Management for operational changes, GE said Monday that Immelt will be replaced by John Flannery, a 30-year company veteran who oversaw a jump in profits at the health-care unit. In a sign of just how great opposition to Immelt had become in the investing community, the stock soared the most in 20 months.
There had been great expectations when Immelt, 61, replaced the legendary Jack Welch as CEO back in 2001. The new boss was seen as a big thinker who could guide GE into the digital age and do so with a lighter touch than his cutthroat predecessor. Immelt hasn’t shied away from major acquisitions to sharpen the focus on making jet engines, medical scanners and gas turbines, including the $10 billion purchase of Alstom SA’s energy business. He also withdrew GE almost entirely from financial services, which once accounted for about half of sales.
Yet investors were unimpressed. As the stock languished — shares are lagging behind the broader market this year after underperforming in 2016 — Nelson Peltz’s Trian began stepping up pressure on Immelt. In March, GE agreed to deepen cost cuts after discussions with the activist investor.
“GE may not necessarily need a drastically new message, but it needs a new messenger,” said Barclays Plc analyst Scott Davis. It will take several years to determine the payoff of some of Immelt’s initiatives, including a digital division, he said. “The market didn’t want to give Immelt any credit for those investments because so many of the things in the past haven’t worked out.”
Flannery, 55, has an “excellent” reputation inside GE despite not being known well by shareholders, Davis said. Flannery may be more willing to pursue a much-needed breakup of the company, Davis said.
Immelt rejected any notion that outsiders influenced his resignation.
“Sixteen years leading a company like this is enough time,” he said in an interview. Immelt said he’s been planning for several years to step down around now, and the final agreement came at last Friday’s board meeting. “This process is not one you can make up in a day or a week.”
Flannery said he would scrutinize GE’s portfolio “with speed and with urgency and with no constraint.” He will take over on Aug. 1 and assume chairman duties following Immelt’s retirement on Dec. 31. The appointment is the result of succession planning that’s been under way since 2011, the company said.
“I’ll look at each business, I’d say, with a focus on its performance, its growth outlook, the cash, the cost structures, the returns, the competitive environment,” he said on a conference call with investors and analysts.
GE jumped 3.6 percent to close at $28.94 in New York, logging its biggest advance since October 2015. Even with the gain, the shares have dropped 8.4 percent this year, compared with an 8.5 percent increase for the S&P 500 Index.
Flannery, who was named the head of GE Healthcare in 2014 after handling M&A for the whole company, has boosted sales and profit margins in the division. He joined GE in 1987.
“John Flannery has a great background in global business, deal making and most recently in leading a turnaround in GE’s $18 billion medical business,” Welch said by email. “He will bring a great internal operational focus to the table going forward.”
Immelt “brought his best every day,” Welch said.
Immelt has become one of the world’s best-known CEOs, yet never won the accolades that Wall Street bestowed on his predecessor. The shares have fallen about 30 percent since Immelt took over as he faced criticism for cutting the dividend in 2009 and paying too much for some acquisitions. He also built up the oil and gas division just before crude prices plummeted.
Immelt won widespread praise in 2015 for a plan to sell the bulk of the volatile GE Capital business and closing the Alstom deal amid heavy political pressure in France. Trian took a $2.5 billion stake that year while saying it supported the portfolio shift.
The relationship with Trian began to sour in recent months as investors questioned GE’s performance. GE on Monday reaffirmed its 2017 outlook while omitting mention of next year’s profit target of $2 a share. Trian declined to comment.
“Although the succession topic has been swirling for much of the past year, today’s announcement comes as a surprise, especially regarding the short timeframe for the handoff,” Deane Dray, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets, said in a note. Trian may have been a factor, Dray said.
Flannery’s “star had clearly risen in the past six months,” Dray said. The new CEO beat out likely contenders such as Chief Financial Officer Jeff Bornstein and Steve Bolze, the head of GE Power.
Kieran Murphy, who has been CEO of GE Healthcare’s life-sciences unit, was named to replace Flannery as president and CEO of the entire health division. Bornstein was promoted to vice chair of the company.
Immelt will retire with at least $112 million, mostly from supplemental pension plans at the industrial giant, according to a Bloomberg analysis. He had amassed $81.7 million in overall pension benefits as of Dec. 31, according to the company’s proxy filing dated March 8.
He also will receive at least $20.7 million from early vesting of restricted stock and pro-rated portions of his target performance shares, based on GE’s closing price Friday, as well as $9.86 million from deferred compensation plans. Two company-paid life insurance plans for Immelt also provide a combined death benefit of $24.2 million.