3 Ways General Electric Could Become Great Again

With $12.4 billion in losses racked up through its fiscal third quarter, General Electric Company is on course to book its first money-losing yearever.

Well, probably "ever." It's certainly the only full-year loss we can find anywhere in S&P Capital IQ's database, which stretches back through a quarter-century of GE's history, all the way back to 1991. How GE came to be in these straits is no mystery. The company -- once synonymous with America's manufacturing might -- spent years building up a business model that overemphasized "financial engineering," eventually ending up looking more like a great big bank than a great American industrialist.

Ever since the financial crisis, though, GE has been backpedaling, and working feverishly to extricate itself from the bad business of banking. It now is time for GE to resume the business of building itself back up again -- of becoming "great" again.

How will it do that? This week, we asked three of our favorite Fools for their thoughts on the matter: What will it take to make GE great? Here's what they had to say.

Steve HellerMany investors fail to realize how few companies exist in the world that can combine technology, domain expertise, and manufacturing in the way that GE can. Consequently, there's a massive opportunity for GE to cross-leverage these areas of expertise and create game-changing solutions for itself and the industry at large. Essentially, GE could return to greatness as it reaches its longer-term goal of becoming a leading digital industrial company.

GE is attacking this opportunity by marrying the physical and digital worlds, using technologies like the Internet of Things, sophisticated software, and big-data analytics. While there are a lot of buzzwords to GE's digital initiative, the goal is simply to produce outcomes that improve productivity and reduce unplanned downtime across factories and entire industries.

At GE alone, a 1% improvement in productivity across its manufacturing supply chain represents an annual savings of $500 million -- real money that can be reinvested, distributed to shareholders, or let flow to the bottom line. Worldwide, a 1% improvement in industrial productivity could boost global GDP by a staggering$10 trillion to $15 trillionover the next 15 years.

Image source: GE.

With high stakes and GE's need to drive longer-term revenue and earnings growth, the company is attacking this opportunity commercially at the machine level with products like smart wind turbines, at the factory level with its Brilliant Factory initiative, and at the cloud level with its Predix cloud platform, whichenables customers to unlock insights at a massive industrial site in real time. In other words, GE appears to be covering its bases.

Looking ahead, GE wants to grow its $5-billion-a-year software-and-solutions business into a $15-billion-a-year business by 2020. I'd say that makes GE pretty serious about becoming great again.

Rich SmithI'm already on record arguing that GE made a huge mistake when it agreed to sell its GE Appliances division to Sweden's Electrolux-- and now, GE has a chance to fix that mistake. On Monday, GE announced that in deference to U.S. antitrust regulators, it is pulling out of the deal, and will retain ownership of GE Appliances.This is good news.

While perhaps not GE's most profitable division, GE Appliances is an iconic brand in a way that "Electrolux appliances" never will be. As recently as 2013, website Statista.com had GE pegged at nearly a 16% market share in appliance sales in the U.S. -- second only to Whirlpool ,and at nearly twice the popularity of Electrolux.

This is a huge market opportunity for General Electric, and one the company should not let slip through its corporate fingers now that it's got a second chance to capitalize on it. Whether it's out of a feeling of patriotism, a desire to preserve their fellow citizens' jobs, or just a plain and simple perception that American-made goods are "better," a recent poll conducted by The New York Times found that American consumers are often willing to pay as much as a 20% premium for goods "Made in the U.S.A."

It's not just Americans, either. In 2012,com reported that, for the fourth year running, "Made in America" was the most popular "country" brand name in the world, for buyers all around the world. (Even Germany ranked only No. 2 -- and that was before the Volkswagen scandal.)

In short, if I had Jeff Immelt's ear and was advising how to make GE great again, I would say that now's the time to double down on that Made in America advantage: Take the GE Appliances division -- and the $175 million break-up fee GE will receive from Electrolux now that the deal has fallen through -- and go head-to-head with Electrolux, with LG and Samsung, and withWhirlpool, too,while you're at it. Continue returning GE manufacturing jobs -- previously offshored -- to the U.S. This trend has already seen GE "reshore" some 1,900 industrial jobs to Kentucky, New York, and Ohio during the past five years.

In short, you're stuck with Appliances now, GE. But that's good news. It's time to get back to doing what you do best: manufacturing. And leave the banking to the bankers.

Adam GalasI'd like to echo Rich's idea that GE needs to continue returning to its manufacturing roots -- but from a slightly different perspective.

For decades, General Electric was known as the bluest of blue chip dividend-growth stocks. In fact, between 1962 and 2008, the company grew its dividend nearly 60-fold, or 9.3% CAGR.

Then the financial crisis hit, and due to enormous losses from GE Capital, the company was forced to break the trust of dividend investors, and end its half-century-long dividend-growth streak, with a brutal 68% dividend cut. Despite raising the dividend 130% since those dark times, GE's dividend remains 26% lower than its all-time high.

Thankfully, GE has spun off GE Capital and refocused its efforts into its bread-and-butter manufacturing, as seen with its recently closed $17 billion acquisition of Alstom's power-generation unit, which significantly increased its presence in the booming global wind power market.. However, its most recent dividend hike of 4.5% clearly shows that if GE is to regain its former glory, and the trust of dividend-growth investors, then it needs to focus on two things.

First, it needs to continue using its vast cash resources -- GE currently has $136 billion in cash and short-term investments on its balance sheet--to opportunistically buy industrial companies in beaten-down sectors that fit within its existing specialties, such as alternative energy and oil and gas.

For example, GE is currently marketing productivity-boosting connectivity via the Internet of Thingsthat promises to minimize oil and gas rig downtime, which can cost oil producers $1 million per day. In todays tough energy environment, where prices for bolt-on acquisitions would be lowest, GE could really cement its future dominance in this booming industry and help drive strong future free cash flow growth.

Finally, GE should make long-term dividend growth a priority by utilizing a large portion of future free cash flow growth to increase the dividend over time, reclaiming its Dividend Aristocrat status, and thus greatly increasing shareholder trust.

Caveat investorAnd there you have it, folks. We promised you three ideas about how GE might become great once again, and we've delivered -- three very different ideas, all coming from different perspectives. Which path will GE follow to greatness? Or should GE follow any of this advice?

Drop by our Motley Fool discussion boards, where we're discussing GE daily, and tell us what you think.

The article 3 Ways General Electric Could Become Great Again originally appeared on Fool.com.

Adam Galas has no position in any stocks mentioned. Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. Steve Heller has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends MasTec. The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric Company. The Motley Fool recommends MRC Global. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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