By Abhijith Ganapavaram and Rajesh Kumar Singh
(Reuters) - General Electric said on Tuesday it would split into three public companies as the storied U.S. industrial conglomerate seeks to simplify its business, pare down debt and breathe life into a battered share price.
The split marks the end of the 129-year-old conglomerate that was once the most valuable U.S. corporation and a global symbol of American business power.
GE shares were up about 4% in afternoon trade, after reaching a nearly 3-1/2 year high, compared with a 0.5% drop in broader S&P 500 index. The industrial conglomerate's shares have gained about 9% since July 30 when it completed a 1-for-8 reverse split.
The Boston-based company said the three businesses would focus on energy, healthcare and aviation. It will combine GE Renewable Energy, GE Power, and GE Digital and spin off the business in early 2024.
GE will also separate the healthcare company, in which it expects to retain a stake of 19.9%, in early 2023. Following the split, it will become an aviation company, helmed by GE Chief Executive Larry Culp.
A company spokesperson said brands and names of the spun-off units will be decided later.
It is the boldest attempt under Culp, who took GE's reins in 2018, to simplify the company's business.
Culp has focused on reducing debt and improving cash flows by streamlining operations, cutting overhead costs and faster collections from customers.
The measures have led to an improvement in GE's balance sheet, putting it on track to reduce debt by more than $75 billion by the end of 2021.
The company now expects to generate more than $7 billion in free cash flow in 2023 and is planning to monetize its stakes in Baker Hughes, AerCap and the healthcare unit to cut its net debt to less than $35 billion by then.
In an interview with Reuters, Culp said the decision to split the company was paved by GE's progress in terms of repairing its balance sheet and operational performance.
He did not expect the spin-off to face any regulatory or labor issues and that there was no investor pressure behind the spin-off decision.
"Spins create a lot of value," he said in the interview. "These are moves geared toward making GE stronger, helping our businesses and the teams perform better."
Culp's strategy is in stark contrast to the path GE pursued in the 1980s and 1990s under Jack Welch, who expanded the company into an industrial behemoth.
A founding member of the Dow Jones Industrial Average in 1896, GE spent more than a century in that storied stock index before getting the boot in 2018 following years of sliding valuation. It created the first electric cooking range and clothes washer, the first nuclear power plant, and supplied the U.S. space program. Its interests have spanned from television, movies and insurance, to lightbulbs and locomotives.
However, it has been facing investor skepticism about its ability to turn a corner since the 2008 financial crisis, while struggling with debt.
For a graphic, see https://tmsnrt.rs/30eqk2r.
The company's revenue for 2020 was $79.62 billion, a far cry from the over $180 billion in revenue it booked in 2008.
In 2015, activist investor Nelson Peltz took a stake in GE and demanded changes at the company, including moving away from finance operations toward its industrial roots. Peltz's company Trian "enthusiastically supports this important step in the transformation of GE," it said Tuesday.
The company's stock, however, continued to underperform and was seen to have prompted former Chief Executive Jeff Immelt's departure.
GE's aviation business, usually its cash cow, makes jet-engines for Boeing and Airbus. It was not immediately clear how the company will fund the unit's operations, which tend to be very capital intensive.
An industry source, however, said the aviation business has been distracted until now by propping up rest of the company, which took a lot of the unit's bandwidth.
Culp also said the spin-off would make different units "more focused" and result in "greater accountability."
The company expects to take a one-time charge of $2 billion related to separation and operational costs and tax costs of less than $500 million.
(Additional reporting by Tim Hepher; writing by Sweta Singh and Rajesh Kumar Singh; Editing by Anil D'Silva and Nick Zieminski)