How GE learned to think small (and serve the poor)

GE is good at big: It makes big wind turbines, big jet engines, big locomotives. These businesses require lots of technology, they have high barriers to entry, and they are capital intensive.

But to generate growth in emerging economies, which have fewer resources, GE is learning to think small.

Recently, the global manufacturing giant (2010 revenues: $149 billion) gave its imprimatur to the Sunspring, a small, solar-powered, water purification machine that serves the global poor, costs just $25,000 and was invented by a self-taught engineer who owns a small business in small-town Colorado.

Interestingly, it was not just the business of GE that made the connection to Jack Barker, the 48-year-0ld inventor of the Sunspring, but the GE Foundation, which last year asked him to help with disaster relief in Haiti. It’s an example of how the company’s charitable endeavors can have an unexpected payback.

Bob Corcoran, who runs GE Foundation, told me the other day that its work has exposed GE to “different thinking about how we can adapt our technology and our products for an increasingly important market,” namely places in the global south that lack clean water and reliable electric power. [click to continue…]

GE: Good citizen, but where’s the payoff?

“Responsible business,” says Bob Corcoran, “is good business.”

And what’s responsible business? “Make money, make it ethically and make a difference.”

Bob Corcoran

Bob is vice president for corporate citizenship at GE, a 30-year company veteran, and a good guy. We met in 2o04 when we traveled together in Ghana while I was reporting a story on GE’s values for FORTUNE. (See Money and Morals at GE.)  Recently we spoke about GE’s 2009 citizenship report, and about what GE has learned in the past five years from its corporate citizenship efforts, including its high-profile campaign around Ecomagination, which focuses the company, and its marketing, on products and services that help solve the world’s big environment problems.

Inside GE, Ecomagination is deemed a success, so much so that it has spawned a sister initiative (if you can spawn a sister) called Healthymagination, focused on profitably creating better health for more people. GE says that it expects Ecomagination product revenues to grow at twice the rate of GE’s overall revenue between now and 2015.

The logic behind both initiatives is simple, Bob noted. Big global problems demand big solutions from big companies. GE prides itself on “tackling the world’s most complex and pressing problems,” as chief executive Jeff Immelt writes in the report.

The trouble is, the payoff for GE’s shareholders have been disappointing. I didn’t realize just how disappointing until I put together this chart comparing GE’s stock-price performance to the S&P500 and to a couple of its conglomerate competitors, Siemens and United Technologies. [click to continue…]

A greener–and more open–GE

General Electric and Wal-Mart are the two most important companies in America, for different reasons: GE’s reputation for management excellence means that its ideas spread widely, while Wal-Mart’s size and clout put it at the center of the consumer economy. Last week Wal-Mart announced its plans for a sustainability index, generating lots of excitement, and today GE releases a citizenship report that demonstrates that the $183-billion company is becoming not just cleaner and greener, but more open.

“We just crushed our energy consumption goals,” Bob Corcoran, GE’s vice president for corporate citizenship, told me when we talked recently about the report. “We have crushed our greenhouse gas emission goals. I feel very good about that.”

He added: “I’m sitting in a building right now” – GE’s corporate HQ in Fairfield, Connecticut – “that has solar panels on the roof.”

As you’d expect from the company that popularized the precision-driven Six Sigma approach to quality, GE’s citizenship report, its fifth, has no shortage of facts, numbers and metrics. But what struck me most about the report were the insights it offers into the changing GE culture.

GE is the No. 1 U.S. wind turbine maker

GE is the No. 1 U.S. wind turbine maker

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How GE gives away money

The easy way to do corporate philanthropy is to write a little check to everyone who asks. Many companies operate this way–$5,000 to the Boy’s Club, $5,000 to the YMCA, $5,000 to the local cancer society or heart association. This is mostly a feel-good exercise, performed, it must be said, with other people’s money.

Today’s Sustainability column at fortune.com and cnnmoney.com is about GE, and the company efforts to be strategic in its corporate giving. I met Bob Corcoran, who runs the GE Foundation, on a trip to Ghana in 2004, and had a chance to see GE’s health care initiative in action there—the company donated medical equipment, a generator, money and lots of expertise to a hospital in rural Ghana. Last week, Bob and I had a chance to catch up when he was in Washington.

Here’s how the column begins:

I’m not a big fan of corporate philanthropy. Too often, it’s a feel-good exercise, generating little value for a company’s shareholders. At its worst, it allows CEOs to use other people’s money to glorify themselves. (Tyco once pledged $5 million to Seton Hall University, which named a building or two after its then-CEO, Dennis Kozlowski.) Rarely is corporate giving both benevolent and strategic.

General Electric (GE, Fortune 500) is one company that does philanthropy right. On Monday, the company announced a new donation – a five-year $18 million grant from the GE Foundation to the New York City public schools, the largest-ever single corporate contribution to the school system. New York is the sixth city to join in what GE calls its “Developing Futures” program, which is aimed at improving schools in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Louisville, Stamford, CT and Erie, PA, all places where GE operates. GE has been working on school reform for decades.

The company’s other charitable focus – health care in poor countries – is newer. I had a chance to see it up close in 2004 when I traveled to Ghana, with Bob Corcoran, GE’s vice president for corporate citizenship and president of the GE Foundation. (See Money and Morals at GE in the Fortune archive.) Back then, GE had promised to donate $20 million of equipment and to lend its expertise to public hospitals and clinics in Africa, beginning in Ghana – a country where it does no business. Corcoran and GE’s CEO, Jeff Immelt, justified the Africa initiative in several ways: They told me the company had been asked to do more in Africa by its African-American employees, that GE wanted to develop good will in a region that soon could grow into a real market, and that knowledge gained from working in poor countries might pay off in unexpected ways for GE.

You can read the rest here.