General Electric Co. Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt's problems have changed an awful lot in the past two years.
In March 2009, GE officials took to the stage where the company's NBC television network films "Saturday Night Live" to assure investors there was no time bomb hidden in its finance arm that would take down the largest U.S. conglomerate.
Tuesday, Immelt faced the same room, this time full of investors who were worried he would let the world's top maker of jet engines and electric turbines build up too much cash.
GE expects to end the year with $20 billion in cash on hand and within the next few years could have $30 billion to deploy on takeovers, share buybacks and further dividend hikes.
"I don't want to be arrogant about it. It's not Jeff Immelt's cash. It's investors' cash," said the CEO. "I want to deploy it in an investor-friendly way."
Immelt has three plans for the money: Further hikes to the dividend — which GE has raised twice this year — more share buybacks and small-scale takeovers.
He took pains to explain to shareholders that GE did not plan to amass the entire $30 billion reserve before it began spending it.
"It was meant to be a conceptual chart," Immelt said of the potential war chest discussed at Tuesday's meeting where he also told investors that profit would be up "strongly" in 2011. "It's more conceptual to let you dream: 'Look at all that cash, Jeff."'
NO BIG DEALS
The Fairfield, Connecticut-based company, which on Monday said it would acquire U.K. oil equipment company Wellstream Holdings for $1.3 billion, plans to keep its takeover focus on deals valued from $1 billion to $3 billion, Immelt said. Deals of that size, while small in the context of a company with a $188.48 billion market capitalization, provide the best payoff, he said.
"You could do a $15 billion deal if you wanted to," Immelt said. "I don't want to. Because you don't make money on the integration."
Some investors agreed smaller deals have a better payoff than blockbusters valued at tens of billions of dollars.
"The big deals can be the tough ones," said Mike McGarr, a portfolio manager at Becker Capital Management in Portland, Oregon, who holds GE shares in his funds. "It will take a lot of small ones to move the needle, but it can be done."
McGarr cited Illinois Tool Works as an example of a company that has grown successfully through small deals.
Investors also said that carefully priced takeovers offered better long-term growth potential, particularly in an uncertain economic environment where organic growth is harder to find.
"If there's a good deal to do, in terms of fit where you can make the numbers work, that's always plan A. Plan B is returning cash to shareholders," said Brian Langenberg of Langenberg & Co.
Still, having seen GE's shares plumb 18-year lows in the past two years and endured a chop of the dividend from 31 cents per quarter to 10 cents, shareholders want more. This year's two-step hike of the dividend by 37 percent is just the beginning, in some shareholders' minds.
For its part, GE aims to maintain its current policy of paying out 45 percent of profit in the form of a dividend, currently 14 cents per quarter.
"Over the past couple of years the focus was on shoring up the balance sheet. Now we are coming into a more shareholder-friendly environment," said Perry Adams, a portfolio manager at Huntington Private Financial Group, who holds GE shares.
"Getting the dividend up to the previous level is going to take a while."
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