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Thomas Edison is said to have declared that he'd make electric light so cheap that only the rich would burn candles.

More than a century later, General Electric Co., the company rooted in all things Edison, is giving up on the light-bulb business.

The industrial behemoth revealed plans Thursday to sell GE Lighting, its last remaining consumer division after a shift toward jet engines, gas turbines and other big-ticket products. GE said it's beginning talks with potential buyers and may unload the lighting operation in pieces.

The move will help the Boston-based company "streamline its portfolio and focus on its core digital industrial assets," according to an emailed statement. GE Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt, who will retire at the end of the year, has tilted the manufacturer toward heavy-duty equipment and developed a complementary software business in recent years while selling most lending and consumer units.

Immelt is under pressure from activist investor Trian Fund Management to improve operations after several quarters of weak earnings and a falling stock price.

GE Lighting, based in East Cleveland, Ohio, has struggled amid government efforts to phase out incandescent bulbs in favor of more energy-efficient options including light-emitting diode technology. GE cited energy regulation in its 2010 decision to close a Winchester, Va., factory that was its last U.S. plant making tungsten-filament incandescent bulbs.

GE in 2015 separated certain energy-related operations, including commercial LEDs, into a new division called Current, while leaving GE Lighting focused on consumer LED bulbs and connected-home products. The Energy Connections & Lighting unit, which includes both GE Lighting and Current, generated a profit margin last year of 2.1 percent, the lowest of GE's manufacturing divisions.

The company plans to retain professional lighting products and assets in Current, GE said in the statement.

The planned exit comes amid a broader reshuffling in the industry. Competitor Royal Philips NV last year spun off the Philips Lighting business through an initial public offering and in December agreed to sell the Lumileds lighting-components unit. Siemens AG spun off the Osram division in 2013.

The move will also push GE out of the consumer realm after the company last year sold its home-appliances operations to China's Qingdao Haier Co. The deal allowed the buyer to continue using the GE Appliances name, so the brand hasn't disappeared from store shelves. GE tried to sell both the appliances and lighting segments in 2008, an effort that was halted by the financial crisis.

Light bulbs have been central to GE's identity since the company's founding. The lighting division traces its roots to 1879, when Edison created the first commercially practical incandescent lamp. The inventor's business interests around light bulbs and related technologies became the precursors to GE, which was formed in 1892.

General Electric is the only remaining member of the original Dow Jones industrial average, created in 1896 by Charles Dow. In the past, its very makeup -- electric light bulbs, appliances, NBC -- gave GE a touch point to hundreds of millions of Americans and consumers worldwide.

Immelt, 61, will be succeeded on Aug. 1 by John Flannery, the current president and chief executive of the company's health-care business, and will remain chairman until the end of the year.

Information for this article was contributed by Jena McGregor and Thomas Heath of the The Washington Post.

Business on 06/13/2017

Print Headline: GE plans to sell off light-bulb business

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