Ex-GE boss Jeff Immelt looks for redemption as chairman of a $5 billion health-care firm

  • Jeff Immelt, former CEO of General Electric, brings star power and a wealth of experience to his new role as chairman of health-care firm Athenahealth, analysts say.
  • However, some see Immelt's move as a chance for redemption, after his departure from GE in the latter half of 2017 capped a rocky 16-year run at the helm.
Jeffrey Immelt
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Jeffrey Immelt

Jeff Immelt, former CEO of global conglomerate General Electric, brings star power and a wealth of experience to his new role as chairman of the maturing health-care firm Athenahealth, analysts say.

However, Wall Street also sees Immelt's move as a chance for redemption, after his departure from GE in the latter half of 2017 capped a rocky 16-year run at the helm that saw the stock lose about 38 percent of its value.

George Hill, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets, believes Immelt could be a "door opener and sales closer" for Massachusetts-based Athenahealth. Immelt can also serve "as a mentor and teacher to Athenahealth's young management team," Hill told clients in a note. "In return, Immelt gets a chance to rehabilitate his image with the investment community."

Athenahealth announced Immelt as its new chairman late Wednesday, and shares of the health-care cloud-based software company were down about 3 percent Thursday. In the past 12 months, Athenahealth shares were up about 15 percent, pretty much matching the performance of the S&P 500.

Immelt is no stranger to activist investors, having dealt with billionaire Trian Partners boss Nelson Peltz, who was a major GE shareholder. He arrives at Athenahealth as Elliott Management pushes for operational and strategic changes to maximize shareholder value.

Immelt succeeds as chairman Athenahealth's colorful co-founder, Jonathan Bush, who remains CEO, a role he's held since the company was founded in 1997.

Don Hooker, an equity research analyst at KeyBanc Capital Markets, described the 48-year-old Bush as a strong entrepreneur and visionary. "Bush will still very much be running things at Athena," Hooker told CNBC. "Investors still want to see that."

But as a visionary, Bush was less inclined to financial discipline, said Hooker, who predicted Immelt will use his decades of experience on Wall Street to develop Athenahealth's businesses and to create new relationships.

"Feedback that I've gotten from inside Athena is that Immelt brings star power," Hooker said. "He's not necessarily a complete expert in health care. But there are a lot of positives." The company cited Immelt's "digital expertise" among the reasons for the appointment.

"In return, Immelt gets a chance to rehabilitate his image with the investment community." -George Hill, RBC Capital Markets

Immelt, who served in various other leadership roles at GE, came under fire by critics for poor leadership decisions as CEO that left GE cash-strapped. On his way out the door, Immelt found himself defending the company's practice of having an empty business jet follow his corporate plane on several trips around the world.

Management expert Jeff Sonnenfeld told CNBC it would be unfair to blame Immelt completely for the troubles at GE, which current CEO John Flannery is trying to fix.

"This is a chance for a new beginning for Jeff," Sonnenfeld, associate dean at Yale School of Management, told CNBC. Sonnenfeld, who's followed Immelt's career and the trajectory of GE, added Immelt's exit from GE was not ideal.

"These new beginnings can be very valuable to individuals and the companies they help," Sonnenfeld said. He also said Immelt's experience and Bush's entrepreneurial spirit complement each other well.

When Immelt took over at General Electric in 2001 from venerable GE boss Jack Welch, the stock was already turning over, as the dotcom bubble of the 1990s burst and took the broader stock market lower as well. Immelt navigated GE through the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 2008 financial crisis.

A spokesperson for Immelt did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment. A spokeswoman for Athenahealth gave this statement from Bush:

"We are thrilled to welcome Jeff to our Board as chairman. His deep expertise and broad relationships in the healthcare industry, combined with his passion for industry transformation, will advance our strategy to build the nation's only platform where providers, patients, payers, and innovators can partner to transform care, together. Jeff will help us not only execute against this strategy in a consistent way, but also push ourselves and the industry to the next level." – Jonathan Bush

Watch: Former GE CEO Jeff Immelt named chairman of Athenahealth