G.E., Which Traces Its Roots to Thomas Edison, Sells Its Lighting Business


More than 140 years after Thomas Edison and his assistants conducted their first successful experiments with a carbon-filament lamp in a vacuum, the company he helped to found — General Electric — has sold its lighting business.

Analysts said the sale, announced Wednesday, was not a surprise. G.E. had sought to offload its lighting division for several years, as it focused on more profitable areas such as renewable energy and health care technology.

But in the annals of American corporate culture, where G.E. and the light bulb have long been synonymous, the uncoupling struck some as a pivotal moment, as if Kellogg had jettisoned its cornflakes business or Ford had stopped making cars.

“From the standpoint of people who associate the light bulb as the symbol of modern invention and innovation, there’s a kind of sadness to the fact that G.E., which for many years was at the forefront of that industry, has moved away from it,” said Paul Israel, director and general editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University.

Still, for years G.E. had been shifting away from that part of its business as it sought to focus on high technology, said Joseph L. Bower, a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School. In that sense, he said, the sale was symbolically significant but did not signal a major shift in the company’s strategy.

“Iconic is the right word because it is not a fundamental change to G.E.,” he said. “I suspect it could have been done a long time ago because, as G.E. looked at its portfolio, its consumer businesses like toasters and things like that weren’t good, profitable businesses.”

G.E. sold its lighting business to Savant Systems Inc., a home automation company based in Massachusetts. G.E. did not disclose the terms, but said the lighting division’s headquarters would remain in Cleveland and its more than 700 employees would transfer to Savant upon completion of the sale. The deal also included a licensing agreement to allow Savant to use the G.E. brand.

In 1892, the company Edison had established to market his products, the Edison General Electric Company, merged with a competitor, the Thomson-Houston Electric Company, to form a new firm, the General Electric Company.

Over the next century, the company would become a bellwether of the American economy, turning out jet engines, locomotives, gas turbines — and lots and lots of light bulbs.

For nearly 130 years, G.E. Lighting was at the forefront of every major lighting innovation, from the dawn of incandescent bulbs to the first energy-saving fluorescent bulb, introduced in 1974, according to the company.

G.E., which reported $95 billion in revenue last year, has not disclosed for several years what portion of its business comes from lighting. But Professor Bower said light bulbs were “not really significant for a very big, big company.”

“Together with Savant, G.E. Lighting will continue its legacy of innovation, while we at G.E. will continue to advance the infrastructure technologies that are core to our company and draw on the roots of our founder, Thomas Edison,” he said.



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