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The Boston Globe

Business

On the Hot Seat

Attracting talent was key in GE unit’s move to Mass.

Brian Palmer, the GE unit’s chief executive.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Brian Palmer, the GE unit’s chief executive.

Brian Palmer is the chief executive of GE Measurement and Control Solutions, a $5 billion energy technology unit of General Electric Co. based in Billerica. The unit, formed through a series of local acquisitions over the years, has about 800 employees in Billerica and Avon, who make energy-measuring instruments and conduct research and development. The headquarters was in Minden, Nev., until about a year ago when Palmer relocated it to Billerica. He recently spoke to Globe business editor Shirley Leung about the move.

You don’t find a lot of businesses relocating from Nevada to Massachusetts. We have a reputation for being a very high cost state for doing business, so what has been your experience?

I hear that a lot. The reality is people want to come work here. The schools, the students in the universities around the area, produce often some of the best technical talent. Despite the weather, despite the Red Sox, people actually want to live here. That gives us the ability to attract some terrific talent.

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You saw some of the technical production talent, but the leadership talent, too. I lived in Nevada for nine years — a beautiful, natural environment — but attracting executive leadership talent to move their families to very rural areas is a tough spot.

When I talk to other companies doing a lot of high-tech manufacturing, they say it’s very hard to find enough skilled workers, have you found that the case?

We don’t have that problem. What you’ve just seen in the plant tour, you’ll see sort of a mix of technicians and engineers. We don’t have the high demand for skilled crafts like certified, licensed electricians, machinists. We have more of a very technical technician assembly-type requirement. The engineers probably outnumber the production workers here. This is an engineering center that builds things.

Are those workers hard to get?

Not the engineers, that’s why Boston is so attractive.

You should do a commercial for the state or the chamber. There was a recent CNBC survey that ranked Massachusetts number 28 in the United States as a place to do business. What would you say to firms considering Massachusetts?

I’d say you have to look at the whole picture. Because in our particular business today, what wins the day for us and what wins the day for us in the marketplace is the best technology. We’re not a commodity, low-cost producer of goods. We’re a technology company. And the best technology’s going to win. Therefore, the place where I can attract the best technologists — the best engineers, technicians — is going to be the place I want to set up business.

If you’re in the technology business, or you’re a technology company, the Boston area is one of the best places to set up because you’re looking for early-career engineering graduates, and I’d say today more than any other item I’ve seen is that people are choosing where they want to live, and people like living here.

You’ve talked about how you doubled investment here in technology, can you talk about what’s driving that?

We’re a collection of a number of different acquisitions. And in many cases the former owners were either private or private equity. And the incentive on returning profit from the company into future R&D is probably higher with GE because we’re here for a long time.

We’ve taken the investment and the acquired companies from what tended to be 1 to 3 percent of their annual revenue, and we continued to increase that year over year over year. So now we’re at a little over 5 percent of revenue, and that starts to feel like a real leading technology company.

From your vantage, where is the US economy heading by the end of the year?

I’m a bit of an optimist here. I think the country wants to get back to work and get back to growth rates that we’ve seen in the past decade. The election is going to be a bit of a distraction and leaves people a little uncertain till the end of the year.

Is it affecting any of your decision making?

If there’s some level of concern or hesitancy in North America, there are other places in the world that are growing for us. So I don’t have the same concern as if I were supplying to one general market. Look, I’m always cautious. I’m not seeing any signs globally that I need to stop investing.

What about this slowdown in China?

That’s going to affect the world. That’s going to affect the demand for raw materials. That’s going to affect the investments that China makes in other parts of the world. Our business in particular in China is affected. We sort of see that off projections.

There are parts of Europe that are in a recession. Do you think we could have another global recession that drags the United States into one?

Again, I’m an optimist. Part of me says that’s a possibility, especially if Europe doesn’t act fast enough, the Greece, Ireland, Spain challenges they’ve got. The bigger risk is a combination of China slowing down even further, India not getting out of their lower flat line and not growing, and Europe.

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