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General Electric Pursues Pot of Government Stimulus Gold

Posted by on Nov. 16, 2009 at 4:26 PM
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The financial crisis hasn't been kind to General Electric Co. Its stock has lost almost half its value, the government has stepped in to prop up its enormous financial arm, and sales have slumped in core industrial businesses.

But Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt now has his eye on a huge new pool of potential revenue: Uncle Sam's stimulus dollars. Mr. Immelt, a registered Republican, quips about the shift in thinking in the nation's corner offices: "We're all Democrats now."

GE has high hopes for the strategy. It says that over the next three years or so it could bring in as much as $192 billion from projects funded by governments around the globe, such as electric-grid modernization, renewable-energy generation and health-care technology upgrades.

The company is just starting to see a payoff. Last month, for example, President Barack Obama announced $3.4 billion in government-stimulus grants for power-grid projects. About one-third of the recipients are GE customers. GE expects them to use a good chunk of that money to buy its equipment.

The government has taken on a giant role in the U.S. economy over the past year, penetrating further into the private sector than anytime since the 1930s. Some companies are treating the government's growing reach -- and ample purse -- as a giant opportunity, and are tailoring their strategies accordingly. For GE, once a symbol of boom-time capitalism, the changed landscape has left it trawling for government dollars on four continents.

"The government has moved in next door, and it ain't leaving," Mr. Immelt said at the International Economic Forum of the Americas in Montreal in June. "You could fight it if you want, but society wants change. And government is not going away."

A close look at GE's campaign to harvest stimulus money shows Mr. Immelt to be its driving force. The 53-year-old executive supported the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, yet scored an invitation onto the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. Inside GE, he pushed his managers hard to devise plans for capturing government money.

As part of that effort, GE has promoted policy proposals such as a government-backed power-grid modernization, and pressed the government to increase the size of stimulus grants for that purpose. It also has helped customers design projects and apply for government money, with the expectation that those customers will then buy GE equipment.

The initiative comes as a sluggish global economy is weighing on GE's core industrial businesses. Pursuing government contracts has become a centerpiece of its strategy around the globe. The company estimates $2 trillion in global infrastructure spending will get under way in coming years. It has announced a flurry of energy deals with foreign governments from Iraq to China.

"I think we will do better than most on the stimulus," Mr. Immelt told analysts in April. He declined to elaborate on the effort for this article.

The strategy is not without risks, say two GE executives who have been critical of the plan. Government policy could change. Stimulus projects could roll out more slowly than GE expects and generate less revenue than forecast. GE could fail to win competitions to supply hardware and services to companies and public entities that receive stimulus dollars.

GE isn't in agreement with the Obama administration on some proposals. Its GE Capital financial unit, which contributed nearly half of its earnings in recent years, received government backing for its debt when the credit markets seized up last fall. Now GE is lobbying against proposals that would separate GE Capital or its industrial-loan company from the parent company. More regulation on its finance division seems inevitable. The company also is opposed to health-care proposals that would result in $40 billion in fees on health-care device makers such as GE.

GE, whose businesses range from washing machines and lights bulbs to aircraft engines, wind turbines and nuclear reactors, has long done business with the U.S. government.

Over the years, the company has been associated with Republican politics. President Ronald Reagan, voice of GE ads and host of the GE Theater television show from 1954 to 1962, said the views he encountered at GE helped transform him into a free-market conservative. Former CEO Jack Welch, who handpicked Mr. Immelt to succeed him, was a prominent supporter of several Republican presidential candidates. Nancy Dorn, the current head of GE's government-relations office in Washington, served in the administrations of Mr. Reagan and both Mr. Bushes.

Mr. Immelt's push to corral federal money began even before Mr. Obama took office. In December, with the economy in a skid, Mr. Immelt was under fire from shareholders. Advisers to Ecomagination, the company's green-technology-development initiative, gathered at GE's boardroom in midtown Manhattan. Among other things, the group discussed how an Obama stimulus plan might shape the nation's energy future.

Mr. Immelt concluded that the company needed to capitalize on the surge in government spending. According to two people present at the meeting, Mr. Immelt told the group that business people needed to support the Democrats' stimulus package.

By January, Mr. Immelt had become a leading corporate voice in favor of the $787 billion stimulus bill, supporting it in op-ed pieces and speeches. Reporters who called the Obama administration for information on renewable-energy provisions in the legislation were directed to GE.

As the bill worked its way through Congress, GE lobbyists pressed for grants, tax cuts or rebates aimed at businesses GE is engaged in, including provisions worth more than $80 billion for energy projects, appliances, health-care information systems and wind farms. GE would have to compete with rivals for a share of these grants.

When the stimulus package was rolled out, Mr. Immelt instructed executives leading the company's major business units "to put together swat teams to get stimulus money, and [identify] who to fire if they don't get the money," says a person who heard him issue the instructions.

In February, a few days after President Obama signed the stimulus plan, GE lawyers, lobbyists and executives crowded into a conference room at GE's Washington office to figure out how to parlay billions of dollars in spending provisions into GE contracts. Staffers from coal, renewable-energy, health-care and other business units broke into small groups to figure out "how to help companies" -- its customers, in particular -- "get those funds," according to one person who attended.

The group put together a colorful two-page fact sheet about how the stimulus plan works, then printed hundreds of copies for GE salespeople to distribute to customers, including local governments and power companies. The fact sheet said GE would be involved with setting national standards and energy-transmission policy. The sheet also said that GE could help regional utilities and governments win federal stimulus money earmarked for making the power grids more efficient.

Separately, Mr. Immelt got an invitation to serve on the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, which would afford him access to the president's economic inner circle. The bipartisan board is composed of industrial, finance and union leaders, and Mr. Immelt has become one of the administration's advisers on jump-starting manufacturing and creating jobs.

"We think he is an important voice...we talk about energy being a place where America can produce jobs in the manufacturing space," says White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. "He has those interests, and they match ours. But we didn't come to them because of him."

At the board's first public meeting in May, Mr. Immelt and fellow board member John Doerr, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and prominent Democrat, led a discussion of the advantages to business of a proposal to make companies pay for greenhouse-gas emissions. The board voted to adopt that position.

"This was an early example of a group of business leaders willing to say that a clean-energy policy that put a price on carbon could create major opportunities for the economy if done right," says Austan Goolsbee, staff director and chief economist on the recovery board. A so-called cap-and-trade bill will likely not be considered by Congress until early next year.

One plank of the stimulus bill provides for energy grants for the development of "smart grids" -- sophisticated transmission systems in which power consumption and demand is carefully monitored to conserve energy. GE says it, along with others, urged the Department of Energy to increase its maximum energy grant 10-fold, to $200 million. Then GE helped some 100 customers, mostly power providers such as Florida Power & Light, to apply for money.

GE General Counsel Brackett Denniston III says the company frequently provides expertise to governments and clients, and that its assistance on government-grant applications does not ensure its clients will win the resulting contracts.

Continued here

by on Nov. 16, 2009 at 4:26 PM
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