Earlier this week, the Boston Globe’s Scott Kirsner, Babe Ruth-like, called his shot, writing a post about why GE would select Boston — and not two other potential spots in New York — as its next headquarters.
“If GE thinks its future is about keeping its portfolio of billion-dollar businesses steps ahead of the competition, growing new ones, and recruiting a next generation of digitally-savvy leaders from some of the world’s top schools, that points to Boston,” Kirsner wrote.
This morning, the Globe’s excellent, yet under-the-radar reporter Jon Chesto reported that on Thursday GE will announce that it will, in fact, decamp in Boston.
A lot of chatter today will likely devolve into chest-thumping normally found after the Red Sox defeat the Yankees — as well as the typical bravado and cockiness in victory that explodes on occasion in your typical New Englander.
Beyond all the congratulatory rhetoric, what does it mean that one of the nation’s largest and most respected (still?) businesses is going to be calling Boston home for the foreseeable future?
First, one quibble, and not to be a downer here, but in terms of prestige and economic impact, how big of a game-changer is to be the place where GE puts its hat?
How many people could name GE former home state of Connecticut? Whereas Facebook and Google are synonymous with California, Amazon comes to mind when thinking of California, FedEx and Memphis have long been linked, and Walmart has always called Arkansas home, does being the worldwide headquarters of GE have the same effect?
That being said, the upside of a move to Boston could be a real breakthrough for the company and the City of Boston, which have both been dogged, for a few years now, by whispers that they aren’t as innovative as they once were.
For Boston, the move by GE is a godsend. For a long time, Bostonians with ties to the Innovation Economy™ have griped about the lack of a pillar company in the area. Looking with jealousy (probably misplaced) at the shiny tech utopias they imagined existed in places like Google in Mountain View and Amazon in Seattle, there has long been a yearning for a singular company to identify with locally. (What about EMC you might ask? Yeah right, that would be like championing the gulag for many locals.)
The entry of GE into Boston means that hopes and dreams don’t have to be hitched to a fast growing marketing company (HubSpot) or to wait for people to actually pay attention to Wayfair’s success.
It is how GE and Boston could benefit each other that is of the most interest.
One secondary, and important benefit to Boston would be if GE set up shop in the cavernous yet currently quite empty “Innovation District” aka The Seaport, aka South Boston. Christened by the late Thomas Menino, the area was supposed to be a bigger better version of Cambridge’s Kendall Square — a close-knit community of software, hardware, robotics, biotech, AI, and whatever else, that sits at the outskirts of MIT. However, that isn’t how the Innovation District story has played out. Currently, there is rampant construction, but the tenants aren’t the technocrati and startupers once imagined; instead, the rising price of real estate pushed out the truly innovative and small companies, while larger corporations have been (somewhat) filling up the large swaths of ocean view office space. (In a real twist, Boston’s Financial District and surrounding area, which is being abandoned by Big Business and the banks has become home to some of the next generation of tech startups including Localytics, Acquia, and office co-ops like the Cambridge Innovation Center.
What does GE get out of Boston?
If the company plays it’s cards right, it could take advantage — better than anyone has been able to up until now– of the feeder potential of Harvard’s business, design, and management grads; MIT’s computer, engineering, and hardware students, as well as the brilliance popping up at Babson, Bentley, Wentworth, Northeastern, BC, BU, et al.
Talk about playing with a stacked deck.
There is a reason that Boston and Silicon Valley have long been linked as the two centers for innovation in the US. Just because Northern California has developed a larger culture surrounding innovation compared to Greater Boston over the past couple of decades doesn’t mean that the next generation of groundbreaking ideas aren’t being experimented on in Cambridge and Boston. I imagine that Google, Facebook, and Microsoft’s recruiting budgets for Boston would indicate how intense the efforts to snatch talent from the plethora of Greater Boston schools truly is.
In a statement released today, GE chief executive Jeff Immelt hammers home this point: (Emphasis my own)
“GE aspires to be the most competitive company in the world,” Immelt said in the statement. “Today, GE is a $130 billion high-tech global industrial company, one that is leading the digital transformation of industry. We want to be at the center of an ecosystem that shares our aspirations. Greater Boston is home to 55 colleges and universities. Massachusetts spends more on research & development than any other region in the world, and Boston attracts a diverse, technologically-fluent workforce focused on solving challenges for the world.”
The statement also hinted at how GE my change to become more competitive.Point to a greater “emphasis on innovation.” Of the 800 new GE employees arriving in Boston, 200 will be corporate, while the remaining 600 will be “digital industrial product managers, designers and developers split between GE Digital, Current, robotics and Life Sciences.”
The company will also launch what it is calling the GE Digital Foundry, which will focus on “co-creation, incubation and product development with customers, startups and partners.”
All in all, the news today is exciting for both company and The Commonwealth.
While it could go awry, something tells me that this will be a beautiful relationship, one that infuses excitement not seen in decades in both Boston and GE.