Why GE’s next headquarters address will be Boston

Boston's Innovation District, which GE is reportedly considering for its corporate headquarters
Boston's Innovation District, which GE is reportedly considering for its corporate headquarters

I love it when things come full circle.

When General Electric announces any day now that it’s moving its headquarters from Fairfield, Conn. to Boston, the company will be returning to the city where its founder, Thomas Edison, launched his career as an inventor. It will also be plunking about 800 of its top executives into our city-wide innovation greenhouse, where they can watch — and ideally participate — as new technologies and ideas that will impact the future of GE grow all around them. When you look at GE’s range of businesses, from energy to lighting to healthcare to water, Boston boasts intense activity in lots of them — fertile soil where startups spring up, academic breakthroughs rain down daily, and larger firms deepen their roots.

And when GE talks about the “industrial Internet” and “becoming the premier digital industrial company” — essentially, enhancing the products it makes with software, network connectivity, and 24/7 analytics — it makes complete sense that the $148 billion conglomerate would want to mix it up with forward-looking Boston companies like Amazon Robotics, iRobot, Formlabs, LogMeIn, and Gridco Systems — not to mention the university where the phrase “Internet of Things” was coined, and where the inventor of the web shows up to work every day. (That’d be MIT.)

OK, so I’m jumping the gun a bit. GE hasn’t yet announced its decision. So what is the case for the other strong candidate it is considering, our perennial rival New York (either Westchester County or Manhattan, according to reports)?

If New York State wins out, it’ll be because of tax breaks GE can’t turn down. Because many of GE’s top executives already spend time in offices at Rockefeller Center. Because of the advantages of being plugged into Manhattan’s information flow, and being able to meet with anyone from any company at a moment’s notice. A location in Westchester County would mean headquarters staffers — not to mention GE chief executive Jeffrey Immelt — wouldn’t necessarily need to sell their homes around western Connecticut. Either Manhattan or Westchester would put them close to four airports, making life easy for execs heading out into the field or far-flung employees paying a visit to headquarters. Not to mention that GE’s famed Crotonville leadership institute, where it trains managers, is already located in Westchester County, too.

But what may have tangled up New York’s pursuit of GE is the fact that moving to Westchester is essentially trading one insular, suburban campus for another, and moving to Manhattan, while it will better plug GE into the information flow and help it attract top talent, will be extremely pricey. New York politicians may find it easier to offer incentives for the Westchester site, and a move to Manhattan will mean that workers will experience the pleasure of paying New York City’s personal income tax, not to mention the thorny daily commute from all directions.

If GE thinks its future is about deal-making, glossy marketing campaigns, and trying to squeeze costs out of industry sectors undergoing commoditization, New York is the place. 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.

Watch the GE video below, and tell me: in what place do you make this vision of the future real? New York? Rhode Island? Connecticut, where GE could choose to remain?

Or do you build that future in Boston, the capital of the state recently named the most innovative in the country? (New York landed at #17 on the list; Connecticut a not-too-shabby #5.)

When GE announces its pick for a new headquarters site this month, I’m placing my bet on 02210. When it happens, somewhere up there the late Thomas M. Menino, the longtime Boston mayor who nudged the city’s Innovation District into existence, will be grinning.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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