Immelt Puts Human Face, and Dollar Amounts, on GE’s Move to Boston

On any other day, the State Room on the 33rd floor of 60 State Street would afford sweeping views of Boston’s financial district, state house, and waterfront. But on Monday, it was shrouded in a snow squall—a reminder that few things come easy in New England, least of all springtime.

Inside the room, elite politicians mixed with celebrity investors and leaders from institutions like Harvard and MIT. It had the clubby feel of Boston politics, but with a notable outsider in the midst. That would be General Electric, the corporate giant that’s in the process of moving its headquarters from Connecticut to Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood.

GE’s chief executive and chairman, Jeff Immelt, detailed some of the company’s new commitments to Boston—including $50 million in donations to public schools, community health centers, and workplace training programs over the next five years. He bantered on stage with Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (see photo), who together led the political charge to bring GE to town.

But most of all, he put a human face on what his company (NYSE: GE) is trying to do in the Boston area.

Immelt began by noting that Boston’s business community has a chip on its shoulder, and that he likes it that way. (He’s not the only one who’s made that observation.)

Still, it was a bit surprising to hear him say that over the past 25 years, Silicon Valley and Seattle “won the consumer Internet,” and that the next 20 years will be about the “industrial Internet.” That means things like sensors, networking technologies, and analytics software for making business systems and devices smarter and more efficient. These are fields in which he thinks Boston can lead the world; so much for fighting the stereotype that it’s not a consumer-tech town.

Immelt specifically mentioned life sciences, healthcare, cleantech, and robotics as key areas of growth for both GE and Boston. He said proximity to innovators and educators in these fields was a big reason for GE’s move.

Meanwhile, outside the building, a crowd of protesters decried the government’s $145 million incentives package that helped lure GE to town, as well as the company’s record of corporate citizenship. Nor could Immelt dodge questions from reporters about what GE will really give back to the community and what its corporate strategy will be. To his credit, he didn’t try.

Immelt said GE is investing $100 million in the physical infrastructure of its new headquarters, and that the company’s total spend on the region would be upward of $1 billion, some of it on a recurring basis. He touted 4,000 new jobs, including GE employees, vendors, and construction workers. As for the timing of the move, he said his staff will “start infesting the Seaport this summer.”

It remains to be seen how much GE will drive much-needed improvements in infrastructure, such as public transportation and roadways. Immelt admitted he hasn’t ridden the T since 1982. Which led Baker to quip, “I can assure you the train you rode on is still in the system.”

Immelt acknowledged that there’s healthy skepticism about how much his company can really deliver on the economic bet made by state and city officials. “It’s up to us to prove them right,” he said.

But here’s a reminder about what’s important to GE, a $120 billion annual business: Immelt said he’s chiefly concerned about selling more jet engines and gas turbines, some of the company’s biggest-ticket items.

The gala ended with a ride down the elevator with Boston Police Commissioner William Evans (who looks and sounds just like he does on TV), and then a walk out into the cold night. The snow was still coming down, but the protesters were long gone.

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