February 15, 2019

Even GE's Boston headquarters is shrinking

PHOTO | HBJ File
PHOTO | HBJ File
General Electric's former Fairfield headquarters.

General Electric is once again downsizing, this time shrinking the scale of its once-ambitious plan for a fancy headquarters along the Boston waterfront.

The struggling light bulb and jet engine maker announced on Thursday it ditched a plan to build a 12-story office building in the Fort Point neighborhood of Boston. Instead, GE and Massachusetts have agreed to jointly sell the campus.

GE is even returning $87 million to Massachusetts, reimbursing the state for most of the $120 million incentive package that attracted the storied company to move from its Connecticut home in August 2016.

The shift reflects how much has changed at GE since then.

GE's share price, despite a surge in 2019, is down 60% over the past three years. Its dividend has been slashed to a penny.

Longtime CEO Jeff Immelt, who presided over the Boston move, is gone. So is his successor, John Flannery, who lasted barely a year on the job. GE has turned the keys over to Larry Culp, the first outsider in the company's 127-year history.

GE is racing to shrink itself in a bid to repair a debt-riddled balance sheet. GE is saying goodbye to its century-old railroad division, spinning off the healthcare business and retreating from oil-and-gas. It's even trying (and so far failing) to find a buyer for the iconic light bulb unit.

In other words, the more modest Boston headquarters reflects reality.

"While changes in the Company's portfolio and operating model will lead to a smaller corporate headquarters, we are fully committed to Boston and proud to call it home," Ann Klee, vice president of Boston development and operations at GE, said in a statement.

The shift was announced on the same day that Amazon ditched its controversial plan to build a second headquarters in New York City because of political opposition.

GE declined to say how much money it will save by scaling back its ambitions in Boston. The company plans to use the proceeds from the sale to reimburse the state. A GE spokesperson said there has been heavy interest in the site in recent months and the sale will probably exceed the $87 million that it will return to Massachusetts.

The centerpiece of the Boston plan was to build a 12-story office tower on a vacant parcel with nearly 300,000 square feet of space that would be ready by 2021.

Now, GE and the state have reached an agreement to sell the entire property, including two brick buildings owned by the state that once served as home to a candy factory. Those buildings are being renovated by GE, paid for by the state, as part of the $120 million incentive package.

GE plans to lease the brick buildings and use the space to house the company's senior executives as well as about 250 employees. That's down significantly from the original plan to host about 800 employees in Boston. The move is scheduled to take place in August.

In a statement, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker's office said the administration is "proud that General Electric chose to relocate the company's world headquarters to Massachusetts and looks forward to GE's ongoing contribution to the growing innovation economy."

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