What Now? The Aftermath of GE's Move | Connecticut Public Radio

What Now? The Aftermath of GE's Move

Jan 14, 2016

GE is reimagining its headquarters environment for a tech-dominated world.
Credit General Electric
Can Fairfield County reinvent itself to stay relevant to business?

General Electric said in this week's announcement that it began considering a headquarters move three years ago: in other words, long before last spring's dust-up over Connecticut’s budget. 

In moving from a suburban campus to an urban setting, the corporation is joining what may be a trend to watch. Kraft Heinz, AT&T, Expedia and Motorola are just a few of the big names that have forsaken the leafy campus life for downtown settings in recent years.

The ability to attract a younger, tech-literate workforce -- the kind of workforce that also enjoys city living -- is a key driver behind these decisions. So is access to top academic talent and innovation; GE specifically cited Greater Boston's 55 colleges and universities.

"They were certainly impressed with the large number of innovation companies that we have here, the high-technology environment that we have here," said Rick Lord, the CEO of Association Industries of Massachusetts. He met with GE execs early in the fall, during their location search.

But what do those trends mean for the less urban environment here in Connecticut? Can areas like Fairfield County reinvent themselves to stay relevant to business?

David Lewis, who runs a business in Norwalk, believes the outlook is bleak.

"Why would anyone pick Fairfield County to move their business?" Lewis told WNPR. "We have a high cost of living. We have a traffic issue that makes commuting into the county a challenge. You cannot find talent at certain salary levels because they cannot afford to live here and don’t want to bother with the commute. Then there is the state government, who has a track record of passing mountains of anti-government legislation."

Lewis's Operations Inc. provides HR services to small business. He wants to see the state's focus move away from attempting to lure big headquarters to Connecticut. 

"If the state comes to realize – as they should – that the future is in small business they will develop more business friendly policies and practices that help all businesses grow, not just the largest firms," Lewis said.

General Electric executives said in the final analysis, their decision was not influenced by tax policy or by economic incentives. But the Connecticut Business and Industry Association still believes that the response from state policymakers will determine the full impact of General Electric's decision.

CBIA president and CEO Joe Brennan said in a statement that lawmakers must not treat the company's decision as an isolated case.

"The conditions that led to this decision exist for many companies in Connecticut," Brennan said on Thursday. "Businesses large and small are making investment decisions every day and they are paying close attention to what's happening in Hartford."

Bruce Carlson of the Connecticut Technology Council was frustrated by the reaction to GE's announcement. "I was sorry to hear that they made the decision they made, but I was probably even sorrier to listen to elected officials engaging in the blame game about who was responsible," he said. Carlson believes a close reading of GE's declared reasons for choosing Boston can provide a blueprint for Connecticut going forward.

"It's about making connections between academic research and commercializing GE products of the future," he said. "Connecticut right now is not going to have the same critical mass and scale that Boston has...but we do have in a smaller scale many of those same elements, and we need to focus on those."

Even as policy makers parse the lessons to be learned, they must also deal with the direct fallout of the move itself.

GE has said it will be in a temporary location in Boston by this summer, so the blow will fall swiftly. What's not yet clear is the fate of all of GE's current 800 headquarters workers.

The new headquarters will include 200 corporate employees, likely moved from Fairfield. They'll be joined by 600 others that GE describes in its release as "digital industrial product managers, designers and developers." But it's not totally clear what happens to the 600 other Connecticut employees. GE has said an unspecified number of jobs will be moved to Norwalk.

Whatever the final numbers, economist Don Klepper Smith of Datacore Partners in New Haven said the impact will be huge.

"GE's departure of their headquarters to Boston is a sad and significant event for the Connecticut economy, and we won't be replacing those jobs anytime soon," he said in research note to clients. "Not only will local housing markets be adversely impacted, but significant economic multipliers on jobs, spending, and tax revenue now come into play, affecting other sectors of the local economy, too. Philanthropic giving in Fairfield County and surrounding areas is likely to take a hit as well."

GE has said it will host a public briefing in Boston with government officials, and business and community leaders, on February 18.

Correction: a photograph of New York City's seaport in this story was incorrectly identified as Boston's seaport.