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The demise of an electronics giant: the men who killed General Electric

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Anita Chandran reviews Power Failure: the Rise and Fall of General Electric by William D Cohan

The former General Electric building at 570 Lexicon Avenue in New York City
From grand heights The former General Electric building at 570 Lexicon Avenue in New York City mirrors the previous grandeur of the company. (Courtesy: Shutterstock/Andrea Izzotti)

When I think of the General Electric Company, more commonly known as GE, I think of the foundations of modern electronics; of the intellectual property war waged between the giants of electricity, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison; and of the establishment that went on to electrify the US. GE is the company of jet engines, the X-ray machine and the light bulb, but that is just the beginning, as William Cohan explains in his detailed history of GE, Power Failure: the Rise and Fall of General Electric.

Cohan, a financial writer and former GE employee, has given himself no easy task. Power Failure is a catalogue of GE’s perilous rise and its precipitous fall, and the story involves a vast cast of characters, details of deals both dodgy and doomed, and no small amount of personal drama. Clear-sighted and with precision, we are taken from GE’s official birth in 1892 – a merger of Edison General Electric and rival electric company Thomson-Houston – to its collapse and fragmentation nearly 130 years later in 2021.

Formerly one of the most powerful companies in the world, GE has been drawn and quartered, divesting from much of its core business and getting rid of its capital division. In 2022, after years of severely underperforming, the company split into three: GE Aerospace, GE HealthCare and GE Vernova.

Power Failure begins with John Godfrey Saxe’s poem The Blind Man and the Elephant, chosen by Cohan to outline his central message. There will be many different men in this tale, we are told, and though a few of them might have got some things right, in the end, they will all have been wrong. At its heart, Power Failure is an examination of the cults of personality that were allowed to form around GE’s chief executives. The company became known not only as a hotbed for innovation and business, but a nursery for the greatest executives in American business, in which a “baronial” environment was cultivated that ultimately contributed to the company’s downfall.

Cohan looks at the lives, psychology and economic decisions of each member of this powerful group, recording in great detail not just their biggest deals and decisions, but also their minute interactions with the management board, investors and even spouses. He focuses particularly on two of them: Jack Welch (chair and chief executive 1981–2001) and Jeff Immelt (chief executive 2001–2017). In examining their lives and circumstances, Cohan positions Power Failure as a “whodunit”, where the murder victim is none other than GE itself, and these two men, he argues, are the main suspects.

Power Failure also presents the tussle between good innovation and good business. From a scientific point of view, one of the things I found most interesting about the book is its discussion of how business can predict and influence trends in science and society. One example Cohan gives is GE’s first president, Charles Coffin, who predicted the rural electrification of the US. Cohan describes GE’s early success as one of American capitalism, reiterating how a company can drive technological growth and the development of infrastructure through competition, when the system functions as intended.

Detailed but dismissive

When I picked up Power Failure, I was expecting it to focus on science and technology, but while this is not the case, Cohan’s writing is very readable. In what might otherwise be a dry and technical narrative, he explains things clearly without being patronizing. At times, Power Failure has the intrigue and rollicking mystery of a thriller, while at others it delves deeper into stocks, shares and corporate governance. Cohan is also thorough, drawing on his own years at GE in the 1980s to present a rich account of the company’s operations during the 20th century.

Part of Cohan’s skill is getting out of the way of his own narrative. He portrays the facts that are important in a linear manner, allowing snippets of remembered conversations, anecdotes or phrases from news reports to heighten the drama. But at over 800 pages, the level of detail and number of anecdotes cause the pace to languish. I found myself wondering – at around the 350-page mark – why I was learning about the dining habits of a relatively minor player in GE’s history, only to discover that they disappeared two pages later.

One noteworthy sticking point for me is Power Failure’s lack of social commentary. Cohan presents some of the unsavoury attitudes of men working in finance throughout the 1900s – such as lavish parties, drug abuse, fatphobia and womanizing – but hastens to remind the reader that “There was no #MeToo movement” back in those days and not to judge these actions on our standards of the day. Perhaps the choice to mention these behaviours at all could be seen as a sort of condemnation, but without pausing to reflect on how rampant and endemic these attitudes were and what kind of culture that left in place at GE, it feels as though we’re being told to let the perpetrators off the hook. A rather dismissive tone, especially in a book that lingers so much on the personal details.

Power Failure describes itself as a “cautionary tale about hype, hubris, blind ambition, and the limits of believing…a flawed corporate mythology”. Today, with tales such as Elizabeth Holmes’ Theranos scam, Anna Delvey’s fraudulent foundation or Billy MacFarland’s fake Fyre Festival, we see the book’s themes echoed throughout the world of venture capitalism. Unerring belief and trust in an individual can lead to financial collapse that leaves shareholders and ordinary employees alike struggling. Cohan does not pull his punches when he talks about self-delusion in Power Failure but, make no mistake, he is honest about the real victors. “As usual,” he writes, “the moneymen won out.”

  • 2022 Allen Lane 816pp £35.00hb / £14.99e-book
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