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Publisher's Summary

How could General Electric - perhaps America's most iconic corporation - suffer such a swift and sudden fall from grace?

This is the definitive history of General Electric's epic decline, as told by the two Wall Street Journal reporters who covered its fall. 

Since its founding in 1892, GE has been more than just a corporation. For generations, it was job security, a solidly safe investment, and an elite business education for top managers. 

GE electrified America, powering everything from lightbulbs to turbines, and became fully integrated into the American societal mindset as few companies ever had. And after two decades of leadership under legendary CEO Jack Welch, GE entered the 21st century as America's most valuable corporation. Yet, fewer than two decades later, the GE of old was gone. 

Lights Out examines how Welch's handpicked successor, Jeff Immelt, tried to fix flaws in Welch's profit machine, while stumbling headlong into mistakes of his own. In the end, GE's traditional win-at-all-costs driven culture seemed to lose its direction, which ultimately caused the company's decline on both a personal and organizational scale. Lights Out details how one of America's all-time great companies has been reduced to a cautionary tale for our times.

©2020 Thomas Gryta (P)2020 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

A GE Middle Manager Enraged to Learn These Things

I found myself unexplainably stressed out in the week that I was listening to this book. Then it occurred to me, I was listening to the story of what I had considered to be my home exposed as something quite different than what it really was.

in almost four decades at the company I have lived through the events described in this book. some of them ring true as events I remember. but most of it is stuff I didn't even know was going on. If the story is even 50% true it is infuriating.

I remember one time somebody telling me, "whatever you have heard about China is true, somewhere in China." Perhaps that can be rephrased to be, "whatever you've heard about GE is true somewhere in GE." the stories you won't hear in this book are the remarkable stories of imagination at work. The authors make fun of this corporate theme, but it is certainly true in my little corner of the company.

Regardless, the book is so compelling that it led me to a physical and emotional response. That tells you of the quality of its writing, and the importance of its content.

3 people found this helpful

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Well researched and a story of Hubris

The book is well researched and tells the story of the fall of GE. This was not a result of a few bad decisions but a corporate culture accepting - even encouraging - earnings manipulation (smoothing at best) over decades. This highlights a former CEO’s overblown ego trumping fiduciary obligations. There were early warning signs and an honest depiction to investors and employees from 2001 could have avoided the inevitable downfall.

The story is just another sad story of corporate greed and how a few senior leaders who made a lot of money while the shareholders, employees and communities suffer and shoulder the burden in the end.

3 people found this helpful

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JP Morgan's progeny

Lights Out is an interesting and timely book. What in the world happened to GE? Its fall from industrial stardom has been astonishing. Since the fall of GE coincides with a decline in American fortunes generally, one feels that there ought to be a lesson here. Although I am grateful for the story the authors are able to tell, I cannot help but feel that there is a much longer and more interesting book under the surface. The authors largely tell a story about Jeffrey Immelt, the successor to the famed manager Jack Welch, who took GE into the financialized capitalism of the late 20th century, which worked while it worked. Immelt took with him enormous riches from GE, and yet left it floundering. Immelt was a positive thinker and a salesman. One of his lieutenants, Beth Comstock, apparently knew next to nothing about the production side of GE, but thought that the important thing was that GE tell a good story, whether tethered to reality or not, to its employees and to the public. The financial books were, to some extent, cooked. Both Welch and Immelt have spent time in their post-GE careers telling everyone who will listen that it was not their fault.
It appears that the authors may not have had as much access to GE insiders as one would like. Since the fall of GE did not result in extensive legal investigations, the major figures do not have to talk, and when they do, it is likely to be self-serving. I did notice one article in Fortune (July 21, 2020) reacting to the book. There, the former communications director at GE lays out what the book “gets wrong about GE.” It turns out that what it “gets wrong” are two minor issues regarding dates. If this is all GE has to say for itself, it is indeed a sad commentary on the actions of GE and its officers.
One suspects that there is a deeply meaningful history here, beginning earlier than these authors do, at least as far back as the beginning of Jack Welch’s ambitious leadership beginning in 1981. I have to admit that I harbor a somewhat disreputable hope that that history would be something of a melodrama, like the fall of Enron, full of idiocy and bad guys. But perhaps it is also a history of an aging industry that even without all the creative accounting, stories, absurd acquisitions, corporate jets, advertising, inflated salaries, financialization, and flim-flam, would have declined anyway.
Maybe the truth is a bit of both. While industrialists used to act as though moving atoms and electrons around efficiently and usefully was absorbing enough (e.g., Thomas Edison), now many of them (supported by the business culture in which they work) appear to care more about stock price, stock options, fame, advertising stories, financial engineering, and drinking their own kool-aid (mixed by chief marketing officers like Comstock). Such a history can’t end well.
By the way, those GE washing machines and refrigerators? That business is still headquartered in Kentucky, but it is mostly owned by a Chinese company. It can use the GE brand until 2056. And those GE light bulbs? They are now a part of Savant Systems, as of 2020. It too will continue to use the GE brand. In a way, the company is going back to its roots, since it was started not by Thomas Edison, the inventor, but by JP Morgan, the financier.

2 people found this helpful

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Former GE employee connecting the dots

Working for GE out of college from 2009-2016 prompted me to listen to this book. I never understood how the company changed so much and fell so far. The internal culture that this book describes makes more sense now than it did when I worked there. The cuts to benefits, pay freezes and other changes all make sense now.

The story was balanced as the world was changing at a pace that GE couldn’t compete with. It wasn’t focused and it showed in the numbers. The teams that I worked with were great and the culture to overachieve was as described in the book.

2 people found this helpful

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Pretty harsh critique

When you look at the history of many great companies, it's hard not to walk away with the idea that most managers are idiots. Although this book focuses mainly on the tenure of Jeff Immelt, the famous Jack Welch doesn't come out unscathed. I mean, seriously why on earth should a company like GE own a television network like NBC? What a stupid purchase.

GE has long represented the ideal that good managers could manage anything, but this close examination shows that's just not true. Companies should stick to markets where they have expertise.

The author also paints the GE Board of Directors an unflattering light, since they allowed ineffective CEOs to run the companies without constraint.

The narrator is good, if a tad over-dramatic on occasion.

1 person found this helpful

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The Sad Fall of an Icon

This was an account of the fall of General Electric. The title of pride and delusion is aptly applied here. Despite a long and storied history, founded by Thomas Edision, "incorporated" by J.P. Morgan, the company was a shining example of what an American company could do, create and become. How far the mighty have fallen. The book starts with a brief history then begins with the most dynamic CEO, Jack Welch. A bio and his approach brought GE billions despite the old boys club atmosphere, GE had a commitment to its customers, employees and shareholders. It took care of them despite some questionable business and accounting practices. When Welsh retired, Jeff Immelt was chosen to lead the company. Unfortunately for him, his tenure was marked by two of the worst disasters to hit modern business and our country, the 911 attacks and the 2008 financial crisis. It began the slippery slope of the fall of GE. It's all here in detail. Overextending themselves, forays into new fields, questionable acquisitions, flowery accounting practices and more. It is a straight forward account of what happened. I read this book using immersion reading, while listening to the audio book. The narration was rote, dull and monotone. The book would've been better with a more emotive narrator. A lesson in hubris this is a warning to many companies of what not to do. A good read.

1 person found this helpful

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OK, But Could Have Been Better

This book tells the somewhat familiar tale of the fall of General Electric under Jeff Immelt. From the perspective of a GE employee or shareholder, Immelt's sixteen year tenure was disastrous. Over such a long period of time, the market simply does not lie no matter what spin is put on it.

The book does a reasonably good job of chronicling Immelt's tenure, capturing his hubris, his sometimes mindless optimism, and his failure to listen to contrary points of view. I think the book also shows the collective hubris of other executives and directors of GE: They always would justify a move or deal with the logic that it could not hurt an entity as large or "capable" as GE. Through it all, Immelt pursues transaction after transaction, always paying too much, culminating in the disastrous Alstom acquisition. As the truth comes out, the stock collapses.

It is fair to note that Immelt was dealt some tough cards. He took over right after 9/11. Jack Welch probably was not as great as his reputation and probably left more trouble than is suggested by common lore. Immelt also had to manage through the financial crisis. However, if GE had been all that it proclaimed itself to be, one would have expected GE to lead the country through the financial crisis. Despite Immelt's positive rhetoric, that never happened. Immelt is supposed to like sports analogies, but Immelt's long tenure would never have been possible in professional sports.

Why GE kept him on for so long seems to be a mystery and it is a mystery that the book really does not answer. I'm not sure there is an answer.

All of this is well covered, but it is also pretty much old news to those who follow financial markets. Although the book makes passing nods to the travails of GE shareholders, employees, and retirees, it would have been interesting if the book had pursued some of these stories in detail. Many of these ordinary people had their lives and retirement drastically affected (some were undoubtedly ruined) by their reliance on GE while management was driving it into the ground. And Immelt and the other former executives left with millions. Unfortunately, the stories of the ordinary folks--which would have provided a stark contrast to Immelt traveling with two corporate jets--remain untold.

At the end of the day, I thought it was a decent book, but somewhat superficial. It could have been better.

I did not care for the narrator at all. There are a lot of mispronunciations. One of the most grating was repeatedly pronouncing "Immelt" as "Immeltz." The narrator also has, to me, a somewhat off-putting baritone voice that is difficult to describe, but, if I had to try, I might call it a Midwestern version of Foghorn Leghorn.





1 person found this helpful

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Come one come all...

Come one come all to hear a story that must be told. How hubris can be the greatest downfall, and the destroyer of innocent peoples lives. No more locker room BS as a determination of someone's ability to lead a business. Accountability and transparency are all that is needed moving forward, in business, in politics, in life.

1 person found this helpful

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Shocking but Predictable (Meaning GE's fall)

The narration was excellent, but the book needs a careful listening to fully absorb the contents. Rich and informative and a book that will tell you the future of many companies working in a corrupt system that supports people at the top at any cost and crushes everyone else.

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Like getting in a time machine

I started my career at GE in the early 2000s and left shortly before the financial crisis. This was like getting in a time machine and experiencing all of the “issues” over again. I could cite specific examples of the approach to making the numbers, “leadership” style, and belief that if you had anything other than positive news then you just didn’t want it bad enough. Looking back, and staying in touch with those who remained, as well as those who followed other GE execs elsewhere, I am so glad I got out of this delusional, toxic culture. You certainly felt like you were a part of something bigger (and better) while you worked there, but ultimately it was a mind game to get you to give up your life and morals in service to profits. I did get amazing training and experience that was far beyond my years. I owe my success to my start at GE and am thankful it didn’t turn me into a person I didn’t want to be. Not everyone can say that.

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  • M. Hubbard
  • 03-02-21

Brilliant

Strikes the perfect balance of telling the 3.5 CEO's of GE over the last 3 decades whilst at the same time detailing some human stories and anecdotes. A really great and informative listen.

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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Cozi
  • 10-13-20

Hubris and Arrogance

As good an example as you will get of executive kleptocracy, incompetence, board negligence and senior management hubris. Should be a case study in bad management in all business schools.

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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Fred
  • 10-03-20

Interesting but bit of a hatchet job

This book offers some great insights into GE's fall from grace, but it's a bit superficial and one-sided.

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  • Biomassman
  • 09-27-20

brilliant insights

great book, insightful look at a global company and a well read book. kept me on the hook