After GE, Boston's Next Whale Could be Big Blue

By Matter

As everyone with a pulse knows Boston was unsuccessful in its bid for the 2024 Olympics (thank God!) but it did win the hotly-contested battle to get GE to relocate its corporate headquarters here later this year.

So it begs the question: why stop there?

What if another titan of industry with a significant footprint across Greater Boston followed suit?

What if IBM decided to trump GE and play “Anything you can do, I can do better!”?

Big Blue is continuing its acquisition binge of Massachusetts-based companies and just this morning Resilient Systems officially became the latest in a long line of software, analytics and services firms it has gobbled up in the past decade. The company is also increasing headcount in Cambridge for its rapidly growing Watson Health group. So is it that far-fetched to think that it might follow the playbook of the Industrial Internet Boys and Girls of GE and move corporate headquarters from its long-held leafy Armonk, NY, campus to the Boston area?

IBM has called Armonk home since 1963 and it currently has thousands of employees there. It is every bit as part of the local DNA as Gillette once was to South Boston and Back Bay. An even better comparison is long-time IBM rival EMC with its ties to Hopkinton.  We all know what happened when Proctor and Gamble wrote a very big check to acquire Gillette in 2005. Gradually that local connection frayed.  And depending on what happens with the Dell-EMC “merger” the EMC influence and presence out on Rt. 495 will likely fade over time.

IBM to Boston? It might be the tech industry equivalent of trading Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. Or A-Rod to the Sox.  Times ten. It would be a “game changer’ in so many ways.

I know one thing is certain. Governor Charlie Baker would LOVE to have Ginni Rometty and company pull up stakes and move north to the Hub of the Universe.  Think of the impact on jobs and tax breaks. Charlie looks great in a tux and what if we got The Good Governor and IBM’s First Lady together socially? Could it happen?

Despite its 50+ year history in Armonk, there’s precedent demonstrated by IBM to re-think and evolve its corporate footprint. Back in 1995 (before distributed workforces really took root and remote work became widely accepted), it shrunk its space by nearly half when moving from one Armonk location to a more modern 211-acre campus, which was dwarfed by the 368-acre headquarters it opened back in 1963.

So what is next for IBM? Could its “Next Big Thing” actually be even smaller corporate headquarters and might they be located here in greater Boston?

Continuing this creative/fictional exercise, here are some thoughts on a new HQ location for Big Blue:

  • Lexington – another leafy and very desirable suburban area similar to Armonk in a few ways. Just a 40-minute ride to Boston (Armonk is the same distance to Manhattan) and there is very likely a sizeable amount of available space up in north Lexington near the Bedford line.
  • Worcester area – while not a tech hub and a bit far removed from the Waltham/Cambridge corridor, “The City of the Seven Hills” must have no shortage of available space, and rich tax incentives to offer. The 128/495 tech belt would finally be expanded to Central Mass. The execs could all move to Westborough and Southborough to complement their existing Marlborough office.
  • Waltham – IBM could own the area that Boston Globe columnist Scott Kirsner in 2009 coined “Mount Money” because it was once Mecca for the local venture capital industry. Theoffice park that looms high over the Cambridge Reservoir and Route 128 were long home to more than a dozen VCs before they got hip and migrated to the Seaport District, Cambridge, etc. IBM in Waltham would restore much of the luster lost there in recent years and the location is prime for access everywhere.
  • Maynard – what’s happening in the old mill buildings once occupied by long-time IBM nemesis Digital Equipment Corporation? Do they need a big anchor tenant? Or would the ghosts of Ken Olsen spook Ginni and company?
  • Alewife – see notation on Waltham above but keep in mind that congestion would be an issue in North Cambridge. On the other hand, guess where Resilient is located? Maybe IBM’s real estate and industrial design gurus could string together a “daisy chain” of smaller IBM locales stretching from their Watson Health location on Binney Street in Kendall Square up to Alewife and all the way to Lexington via the Red Line and bike paths?
  • Of course downtown Boston – the new TD Garden complex might seek some business tenants and Downtown Crossing and Seaport (some in the real estate industry are taking to calling it the new Dubai) are always attractive, if not ridiculously priced locales. Don’t rule them out so Ginni could live in Beacon Hill or Back Bay.

Clearly there are a lot of “ifs” involved in something of this magnitude. And, while I have no idea if IBM is handcuffed in Armonk, it might be fun to speculate about it and get the input of the local tech, real estate, recruitment industry.

Could it happen? What would it take? What would be the economic impact on the Hub? What are your thoughts?