A tale of 2 CEOs: How GE, United Airlines chiefs handled investors

GE boss John Flannery (left) said "we need to make some major changes", while Mr Oscar Munoz (right) failed to reassure investors that costs and capacity growth were under control at United Airlines.
GE boss John Flannery (left) said "we need to make some major changes", while Mr Oscar Munoz (right) failed to reassure investors that costs and capacity growth were under control at United Airlines.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

NEW YORK • General Electric's post-earnings conference call last Friday was a portrait of grabbing the bull by the horns. However, United Airlines' call was more like getting gored.

When GE released its results - missing analysts' estimates by a mile and slashing the profit forecast - its shares plunged. Two hours later, when the analysts' gaggle began, the stock was down 7 per cent in pre-market trading and still falling.

Then Mr John Flannery took the mic for his first earnings call as GE's chief executive officer. The industrial giant's results were "unacceptable", he told analysts. "We need to make some major changes." He vowed to shed more than US$20 billion (S$27 billion) worth of assets and hold executives accountable for failing to deliver profits. Nothing was sacred.

It was music to the ears of investors pushing for big change after more than a decade of frustration over poor returns from the 125-year-old maker of power plants, jet engines, medical devices and other industrial equipment.

GE's stock soon started climbing. Shortly after the market opened, the shares were down just 4.6 per cent. GE closed 1.1 per cent higher.

Contrast that with Mr Oscar Munoz's performance with United Continental Holdings, the parent of United Airlines.

The airline issued a tepid earnings forecast late last Wednesday and said it had lost its short-lived grip on a closely watched measure of pricing power. But some analysts said the picture wasn't as ugly as feared, and the stock dropped only moderately in early trading.

But then the bottom fell out when Mr Munoz addressed analysts. The CEO and other executives failed to reassure investors that costs and capacity growth were under control. Nor could they provide an update on key financial targets United laid out last year.

Mr Munoz asked for "a little bit more patience". He didn't get it. Halfway through the call, United's shares turned south. By day's end, what started out as a moderate slide ballooned into a 12 per cent stock rout - United's worst in eight years.

Analysts said they were fielding questions from investors about whether United needed a management change. Mr Munoz has been under fire all year for a series of missteps: Fighting a fare war with discounters, bobbling the roll-out of a new no-frills product and mishandling the furore when a passenger was infamously dragged off a plane in April.

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'A tale of 2 CEOs: How GE, United Airlines chiefs handled investors'. Print Edition | Subscribe