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Business community could be key ally in Amazon courtship

(From left) Ann Klee, Jim Rooney, Paul Healy, and Colin Angle.Pat Greenhouse, Bill Brett (for the Globe), and Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

With an eye on an even bigger prize, members of the city’s business community are preparing a repeat of the strategy that won over General Electric, to convince Amazon to also locate a headquarters in Boston.

For now, most of the business community’s leaders are waiting quietly while state and city officials prepare bids to meet Amazon’s Oct. 19 deadline. But should Massachusetts make it into the second round of consideration, then local business leaders are considering a reprise of events such as a dinner they hosted for GE officials in a North End restaurant, when Boston was among the final eight places the company was considering for a new headquarters.


Only this time, with Amazon on the line, GE will be among the companies now offering to talk up Boston.

“We can tell [Amazon] how our assumptions played out. Frankly, Boston has exceeded all our expectations,” said Ann Klee, the GE vice president who led the site selection project. “The factors that were important to us, many of those are going to be relevant for a company like Amazon.”

The dinner at Tresca was in September 2015, months before GE announced its relocation decision. But Klee said it proved important, providing tipping-point info about the local workforce, housing and transportation, and making Boston’s bid stand out among the rivals.

“Hearing from the business community gives you a different perspective than the city and state,” Klee said.

GE was a huge prize — the promise of a $200 million headquarters campus in Fort Point, 800 corporate jobs, and a widening role in the region’s innovation community. But Amazon threatens to dwarf that with its “second headquarters”: a complex that could eventually employ 50,000, with the average salary expected to top $100,000 a year.

For now, business leaders are signing a letter circulated on behalf of the Baker administration to highlight the state’s skilled workforce and close working relationships between government officials.


The Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, a group of prominent chief executives, is among the organizations that have agreed to assist. Some leaders are sending letters of their own, including the presidents of the UMass system and Northeastern University, as well as local chambers of commerce from various corners in Massachusetts.

Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce chief executive Jim Rooney said he doubts these letters will be a differentiating factor this early in the process.

Amazon could end up with hundreds of submissions from across the country later this month, many arriving with endorsements from hometown business honchos.

Boston’s business community can really come into play, Rooney said, later in the process. Assuming the Boston area makes it into the second round, one-on-one conversations with local executives could play a bigger role in helping Amazon and chief executive Jeff Bezos make that final choice.

For GE, the courtship continued after the Tresca dinner. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft entertained then-chief executive Jeff Immelt at Gillette Stadium, for example, and State Street chief executive Jay Hooley met with Immelt and chief financial officer Jeff Bornstein at GE’s former headquarters in Fairfield, Conn.

“The game now is to get into round two,” Rooney said. “I think the business community can be more tactical and more effective when that comes around. Now you’re starting to say, ‘OK, is this a GE-like strategy in which the Bob Krafts and the very prominent business leaders of our community are asked to or are willing to step up and have those conversations?’ ”


Mass. Competitive Partnership member John Fish, chief executive of Suffolk Construction, sums up what he expects to be central to Boston’s business pitch to Amazon: “Our colleges and universities are second to none. This is the ground zero of innovation. What we’re doing, institutions are collaborating in such a way, we’re creating a workforce for the future. Amazon is not focused on what’s happening today. They’re betting on, investing in, what community is positioning itself for the future.”

Among those who may reach out to Bezos is iRobot chief executive Colin Angle, who considers the Amazon boss a mentor, particularly in the years before iRobot became a publicly traded company. He is submitting a personal letter of support, as part of the state’s package.

While some tech executives have quietly expressed concern that Amazon’s arrival could make it tougher to hire skilled workers, such as engineers, Angle argues it would only make the Boston region a bigger magnet for talent.

There is some skepticism that Massachusetts can offer the kind of tax breaks and other incentives more common in other regions of the country. Plus, lobbying can only go so far.

Jack Connors, the ad mogul-turned-philanthropist, said Bezos is probably already well aware of the Boston area’s biggest selling point: its wealth of universities.

“Most of the work that is necessary to convince Jeff Bezos [about Boston’s strengths] has been done over the past 200 years,” Connors said. “I think Bezos is the kind of guy who probably has a list in his pocket of the places he’d want to be.”


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