Immelt's £9.5bn shopping spree: From films to Finnish anaesthesia

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The Independent Online

The £5.7BN deal to acquire Amersham caps an extraordinary week of deal-doing for General Electric and its chief executive, Jeff Immelt, who is starting to emerge from the long shadow of his predecessor, Jack Welch.

On Wednesday he sealed the long-awaited acquisition of Vivendi Universal's US film and television interests for £2.3bn, bolting them on to the GE media arm, NBC.

On Thursday it was final completion of the £1.5bn acquisition of Finland's Instrumentarium, which makes anaesthesia equipment and which had finally wended its way through regulators.

And then yesterday, a further acquisition for the medical division, bringing Sir William Castell's Amersham for a price that beat anything forecast by the City. "With Vivendi on Wednesday, Amersham on Friday, my chief financial officer wants me to take a break here," Mr Immelt joked yesterday.

The breathtaking number, size and diversity of these deals underscores GE's status as a conglomerate of conglomerates. Its products range from kitchen appliances to nuclear reactors, from television programmes to jet engines. It sells insurance and personal loans, making it one of America's largest financial services groups. It has interests in plastics, in power generation, in broadcasting. It is divided into more than a dozen divisions, each with annual sales over $1bn. It is valued at about $300bn, jostling with Microsoft for the title of world's largest company.

The past few days have been symbolic, says Mr Immelt. "You never plan deals this way and it's not ideal because of the wear and tear on the people involved. But it is symbolic of where we are taking the company and the way we are moving the company aggressively. We have added to the high growth, high return industries' side of the company, and this is the direction we are going to continue to go."

Mr Immelt has promised investors double-digit percentage growth every year, and with the sheer scale of the business, with sales of $97.2bn in the first nine months of the year, and net earnings of $10.4bn, the task gets harder and harder. He says his focus is on organic growth, but critics say GE is more and more reliant on acquisitions.

It will also most likely mean a bigger clear-out of the low margin, low growth business such as lighting and appliances, which are rumoured to be up for sale.

It is a continuation of the strategy adopted by Jack Welch when he became president in 1981, the start of 20 years at the helm which took him to the height of popularity as a business theorist but which ended in ignominy in 2001. His reputation as a frugal business manager was tarnished by revelations of high living at GE's expense, which emerged during a divorce battle.

The Welch era also ended with an embarrassing personal clash between him and Mario Monti, European competition commissioner, over the proposed acquisition of Honeywell, the manufacturing giant, which was blocked.

It is why Mr Immelt was yesterday reluctant to get drawn on timetables for clearance for the Amersham deal, which takes GE's healthcare technologies division into unchartered regulatory waters. One insider said: "With Honeywell, part of the problem was Jack tried to ram it through. But Jack and Jeff are very different in character and outlook."

Mr Immelt, 47, came from the medical systems side of the business to become chairman and chief executive two years ago. He has been a GE man for over 20 years, an example of the company's investment in identifying promising managers, grooming them for greater things by moving them around the businesses and around the globe.

GE traces its origins back to Edison General Electric and Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, was on the board when it was created from the merger of his company with Thomson-Houston in New York in 1892. What makes it still hang together? Probably nothing much beyond its history and American pride. Trying to articulate a corporate philosophy, Mr Immelt could yesterday only suggest: "We like to think of GE as being able to combine vision with resources to make business happen."