When John Barros first connected with a General Electric executive about the company moving its headquarters, he received what might seem like an odd request.
Please don’t call us GE. Use “Project Plum” instead.
Barros, as Boston’s economic development chief, didn’t find the request surprising. Code names, after all, can keep sensitive information from leaking out — the company’s name, for example, revealed by an errant photocopy or e-mail. Barros said the city’s effort to honor that confidentiality request probably helped it land GE’s headquarters this month, following a spirited contest with other cities.
“For a while, the city staff would only talk about it as Project Plum. Not until the last few weeks of this were people comfortable talking about it as GE,” Barros said. “It’s in our favor to keep that confidentiality.”
Welcome to one of the quirkier aspects of the commercial real estate world: the project code name. Military leaders use them frequently, as do investment bankers who want to keep a corporate deal from leaking.
They’ve become almost commonplace in the company-relocation sweepstakes. Jay Ash, the state’s secretary of economic development, said half of the roughly 25 prospects his agency is currently tracking have code names.
The names typically come from the companies themselves or their advisers. In GE’s case, certain top state and city leaders knew the corporate identity all along. But sometimes officials deal only with an intermediary and don’t learn the company involved until the end of the process. Instead, they’re given parameters that won’t give the name away, such as the kind of property it might need and its particular industry. A GE spokesman said it uses code names to preserve the confidentiality of its business dealings.
Sometimes, the names can hint at the true identity. But mostly, they’re plucked out of thin air.
For example, “Project Hummingbird” was the name given to Bristol-Myers Squibb’s hunt for a location for a manufacturing plant; in 2006, the drug maker chose Devens. Two years ago, a major player in the life sciences industry hunting for space in Kendall Square was known around town as “Project Tiger.” When word of Tiger leaked out, a new name was conjured up: “Project Schooner.” Illinois-based Baxter International eventually came forward, announcing its spinoff, Baxalta, would open in Cambridge.
“I was involved with one project where we were sitting around in a conference room, and they named the project after the conference room,” said Lawrence Moretti, a corporate relocation specialist in Yardley, Pa.
Keeping the ruse up can pose some logistical challenges.
“Cards aren’t given out, [only] first names are used,” said Brian Cohen, a partner at brokerage Transwestern RBJ’s Boston office. “You have someone else book a hotel room, so no one can go back and trace [it].”
So why go through the trouble?
One big reason: to avoid upsetting employees unnecessarily. They don’t usually get the kind of heads up GE workers got in June, when chief executive Jeff Immelt announced the company would consider leaving Fairfield, Conn.
“Half of these relocation feasibility studies result in staying put,” Moretti said. “You don’t want to necessarily create a lot of potential disruption when nothing may ultimately happen.”
There are other reasons to stay under the radar. Word of a potential expansion could be valuable intel for a competitor or for another state or city on a company’s short list.
“There’s a competitive edge that you don’t want to reveal to the outside world until it’s absolutely necessary,” said Dennis Donovan, a principal at Wadley Donovan Gutshaw Consulting, a New Jersey site-selection firm.
Once in a while, a code name is already taken. About a year ago, Donovan’s firm approached MassEcon, a nonprofit group in Watertown that helps companies with property searches, about a client, Lego Education. The search, though, was only known as “Project Diamond.”
MassEcon executive director Susan Houston said there was another Project Diamond looking for space here, so the Lego Education search was renamed “Project Apple.” But even Houston and her colleagues did not know the identity of the company for several months. Lego Education eventually picked a 20,000-square-foot space in the Back Bay for its local home.
All this secrecy can be frustrating.
“They confuse the heck out of me,” said Ash, the state’s point person for economic development. “I can’t keep track of them all.”
So after GE came knocking, Ash proposed to his staff last summer that the industrial conglomerate be referred to as “Project Project.” It was a light-hearted effort to differentiate the GE proposal from the other recurring code names in the agency’s files. That moniker, however, was short-lived. “Project Plum” it would be.
“I’m a big ‘Seinfeld’ guy and it felt like something that would happen in ‘Seinfeld,’ ” Ash said of his “Project Project” suggestion. “We’ll have a ‘Project Kramer’ soon, I guess.”Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.