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GE to sell Water, remnant of lost Philly factory empire

As it spins out

GE, which once made everything from electrical-generating stations to satellite and missile parts in the Philadelphia region, is looking for a buyer for its last major manufacturing operation here, GE Water & Process Technologies, including its 350-person executive offices and labs in Trevose. (See what GE Water and partners did to cut/recycle water, wastewater and energy use at cult Delaware brewer Dogfish Head, here.)

GE was reluctant "to be an investor in Water long term," once the energy business spins off; a sale "made all the sense in the world," Bornstein said. He added that Water earns more than $250 million in operations profits a year, not counting interest, taxes and depreciation.

U.S. manufacturer Honeywell and U.K.-based Pentair PLC are likely acquirers for GE Water, according to a Royal Bank of Canada research report.

The water business, which employs about 7,500 worldwide, develops, builds and sells desalinization, wastewater and industrial water-treatment systems, a business GE had seen as complementary to power systems.

GE has felt pressure from investors including Nelson Peltz's Trian Global Management, a New York hedge fund, to cut costs and boost profits. Trian, which also pressed for the break-up of DuPont Co. and other big U.S. companies, owns about $2 billion worth of GE shares, nearly 1 percent of the total.

GE Water should find ready buyers because its pros have "deep domain expertise" at "innovating for a smart water future," Heiner Markhoff, boss of GE's power and water group, told WaterWorld here.

The Trevose offices are in a corner of what was once a 110-acre campus that was home to water-treatment developer Betz Bros., later Betz Laboratories. GE acquired what was by then the former BetzDearborn from the former Hercules Inc. in 2002, and combined it with other water-tech businesses in the U.S. and U.K.  Before corporate consolidation, Betz also had offices in Philadelphia and Horsham.

Besides research-and-development labs, meeting and office space, the Trevose site included an industrial monitoring and diagnostics room staffed by engineers with interactive maps and communications, which, with other stations in Europe and Asia, help GE and its large industrial clients monitor plants, equipment and customers worldwide.

"We've got a lot of really smart people that understand process data alogrithms" and can use remote sensors to predict the maintenance needs of  power-generation stations, medical devices and aircraft engines, saving time and labor compared to routine maintenance schedules, chief marketing officer Ralph Erik Exton said during a plant tour two years ago.

General Electric was one of the Philadelphia area's largest employers in the post-World War II and Vietnam War era, when it designed and built power plants in its sprawling complex in Southwest Philadelphia, missile and satellite parts in University City and King of Prussia, and consumer and military electronics at former RCA plants in Camden, Moorestown and Princeton, among other manufacturing sites in the region.

But the company long ago sold or closed most of its local industrial plants. It still has energy and power offices in Exton, a medical-tech group in King of Prussia, and a finance office in South Jersey.