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Major General Electric unit planning move to Greater Boston

LED, energy lines to form new division

Components for General Electric’s LED light bulbs were tested at the GE lighting group’s current headquarters in East Cleveland, Ohio.
Components for General Electric’s LED light bulbs were tested at the GE lighting group’s current headquarters in East Cleveland, Ohio. (Mark Duncan/Associated Press/File 2011)

The industrial giant General Electric has decided to establish another one of its major business units in the Boston area, one that will start with at least $1 billion in annual revenue.

And looming on the horizon is the potential for an even bigger prize: GE’s corporate headquarters. The conglomerate is actively investigating relocating from its longtime home in Fairfield, Conn., and said it expects to decide by year’s end.

The company won’t discuss which states are on its short list.

The new subsidiary coming to Massachusetts will be called Current and will include a collection of lighting and energy business lines. But GE has yet to decide where this new division will be based and how many people would be hired here.

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For now, though, state economic development officials can celebrate another victory, even if the scope of it remains unclear. GE’s announcement on Wednesday that it would base Current in Greater Boston comes as its health care division is in the midst of moving to Marlborough from New Jersey.

Jay Ash, Governor Charlie Baker’s secretary of housing and economic development, said state officials didn’t need to actively recruit the Current business. Instead, Ash said, he learned about it after GE had made the decision to launch Current here.

“We’ve gotten to a point where everyone has taken notice that Boston is the place to be when it comes to innovation,” Ash said.

Ash declined to comment when asked if Massachusetts is under consideration for GE’s headquarters, citing his agency’s policy against discussing property searches by companies while they are underway.

Deia Campanelli, a spokeswoman for GE’s Current business, said the decision to base the company in Greater Boston is not connected to the headquarters search. She said the company hasn’t picked a location for Current’s office, decided on its size, or finalized how many people will move here. A decision is expected on all three matters, she said, by early 2016.

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“We’re looking at viable properties, and we hope to announce something as we head into the new year,” Campanelli said. “We need to look at the existing businesses today [and] we need to look at where these people are, and where those individuals need to be based. . . . The answers will dictate what type of facility we need to move into and how large that needs to be.”

To create Current, GE is combining its light-emitting diode, or LED, business with its solar, energy storage, and electric vehicle businesses.

The new company will be led by Maryrose Sylvester, currently the chief executive of GE Lighting, based in East Cleveland, Ohio.

Campanelli said it’s not yet clear if Sylvester will relocate to the Boston area.

The LED business is currently run as part of GE Lighting, while the renewable energy businesses are based in Schenectady, N.Y..

The business lines being rolled into Current generate about $1 billion in revenue, with big-name customers that include the drugstore operator Walgreen Co. and mall owner Simon Property Group. GE wants to increase Current’s revenue to $5 billion by 2020.

About 1,000 people currently work for the various operations, Campanelli said, but only a handful are in Greater Boston for now. GE said it expects to create roughly 200 new jobs at Current within the next few years.

Campanelli said GE picked the Boston area because of its clusters of clean-tech and software firms. It’s too early to know, she said, how many of those new positions at Current will be created in the region. “It’s fair to say we’ll have a strong presence there,” she said.

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Sean Becker, owner of the Somerville energy-storage startup Sparkplug Power, said he can understand why GE chose Greater Boston over Schenectady. The labor pool here is deeper, he said, and it’s easier to persuade talented workers to be in Boston than in upstate New York.

“You have so many resources to draw on around here,” said Becker, who used to work for GE’s energy business before starting his own firm. “If you’re doing clean-tech, outside of Silicon Valley . . . where do you go? I would say Boston.”

For GE, the creation of Current reflects an increased focus on what are known as distributed-energy resources — efficiency and generation systems at a customer’s site, as opposed to off-site power plants. The goal is to help customers control or drive down their energy costs.

“We see large cities, hospitals, large commercial and industrial building owners all trying to be more proactive in running their energy systems,” said Peter Rothstein, president of the New England Clean Energy Council, a trade group. “It sounds like GE is recognizing that.”

GE already has a sizable presence in Massachusetts, with its jet engine factory in Lynn and its measurement and control business in Billerica, which serves the energy and aerospace industries.

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GE Healthcare is the newest arrival: MetroWest Chamber of Commerce chief executive Paul Joseph said at least 100 people were working in the new Marlborough office when he toured it last month, and as many as 600 could be there two years from now.

Then there’s the corporate headquarters question. GE chief executive Jeffrey Immelt first indicated in June that he would look at other states after Connecticut officials had planned a big increase in business taxes. (About 800 people work at the Fairfield headquarters.) Since that time, top officials from a number of states have courted GE.

Immelt has said he would like to make a decision by the end of the year. A GE spokesman on Wednesday declined to say much more, other than that the company is taking many factors into consideration while it assesses its headquarters options.

“You want to be someplace where people support job creation, where it’s attractive to talent, good cost of living, and that is very supportive in terms of what a high-tech exporter has to be all about,’’ Immelt said during an interview with CNBC in September. “It is a global battle that we are in, and we need people that are on our side.’’


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.