When the economy took a hit five years ago, Randy Bentley added a second shift. Bentley is a vice president at Numerical Precision Inc., a machining business that employs some 80 workers in Crosby, Texas, just outside of Houston. Numerical may be a small business but it makes big things like wellhead componenents for GE’s Oil & Gas unit, its largest customer. “We’ve been running two 12-hour shifts close to five years now with no slowdown in sight,” Bentley says. Today he is shopping for quotes to build a new 25,000 square foot plant to add machine capacity, and a new 5,000 square foot office. “I’ve always felt that we had a very loyal relationship with GE, especially with the guys down here in Houston. They’ve always taken care of us in downtimes.”
Numerical is one of thousands of small and medium size companies doing business with GE. Last year, for example, GE paid over $10 billion, a third of its total U.S. supplier payments, to some 11,000 companies from the U.S. middle market. This key business segment, which includes companies with revenues between $10 million and $1 billion, contributed over $10 trillion to American GDP last year and accounts for a third of all U.S. jobs. By itself, the segment would be the world’s fourth largest economy, right behind Japan, according to GE Capital, one of the largest lenders to the middle market, and the National Center for the Middle Market.
Michigan’s Progressive Surface, which supplies GE with high-tech machines that make jet engine parts and blades more durable, is a solid middle market member. “The company really took off in the 80’s, when we started to do aerospace work,” says Jim Whalen, Progressive’s vice president of sales and marketing. “That’s when GE became a customer.”
Michigan’s Progressive Surface supplies GE with high-tech machines that make jet engine parts and blades more durable.
The partnership with small companies goes beyond business orders. GE’s Advanced Manufacturing and Software Technology Center outside Detroit, not far from Progressive’s plant, will provide small and midsize American companies with access to powerful computers and pricey industrial-strength modeling software. This will help them work with large manufacturers in the car industry and elsewhere that demand such technology and preserve precious capital. GE will run the center in partnership with the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. “When you talk about creating jobs and growing the economy in Michigan, these are the kind of long-range opportunities that will really make a difference,” says Rick Jarman, president and CEO of NCMS.
GE has also been funding start-ups and promising new ideas though partnerships like Energy Technology Ventures (ETV) and the $20 million ecomagination accelerator program. Last March, for example, ETV invested in Oblong Industries, maker of a gesture-based operating system. (The technology appeared in Steven Spielberg’s futuristic thriller Minority Report.) The accelerator program is using GE to scale the offerings of companies like Oblong and funds commercial pilots in key growth markets. GE Digital Energy has already licensed Oblong’s technology for its Smart Grid analytics software. “We seek to invest in brilliant innovations that solve real problems with a talented team that can execute,” said Kevin Skillern, managing director of GE Energy Financial Services and an ETV representative. “We found that in Oblong.”