Procter & Gamble has been busy reinventing Gillette under pressure from lower-cost competitors. Think: big changes to marketing, innovation, online sales.
Now comes phase two of that reinvention — one that will probably bring changes to Gillette’s prominent complex on the Fort Point Channel in South Boston as well as its lower-profile sibling campus in Andover.
Gary Coombe, chief executive of P&G’s grooming business, told the company’s 1,300 Massachusetts employees Thursday that it is reassessing its two properties here. The stated goal: investment in new high-tech manufacturing equipment, R&D labs, and modern offices.
But with excess space at the 34-acre campus in South Boston and the 150-acre Andover location, real estate savings will be part of the equation.
Just how much extra land are we talking about? In Southie, buildings occupy just around 40 percent of the acreage; in Andover, it’s only about 10 percent, while most of the property is completely unused.
“Carrying a lot of underutilized land is an unnecessary expense that no business would want to bear,” Coombe told me.
Coombe said the company is just starting its assessment and hopes to have a decision by early next year. He didn’t rule out relocating the blade manufacturing operation from its South Boston home, where the company has had a proud presence for more than 100 years, although he said he doesn’t plan any job cuts in the region.
Regardless of the outcome, Coombe said P&G will maintain a “meaningful presence” in both communities.
P&G resisted selling pieces of its South Boston campus even as the neighborhood boomed around it — until General Electric came knocking. GE and state agency MassDevelopment acquired a section of the Gillette campus in late 2016 for GE’s new headquarters. (GE and the state have since sold that land to other developers, as GE scaled back its HQ plans.) Other deals have since been made, most notably the sale of a 6.5-acre parcel next door to the GE site, to developer Related Beal in May. There goes another parking lot.
Coombe said he hasn’t hired a real estate services firm yet to study the alternatives; he first wanted to break the news to employees.
You can’t blame Coombe for being deliberate in his choice of words when talking about the future of the “World Shaving Headquarters.” The P&G veteran knows the Southie property’s long-term fate has been a topic of water-cooler chatter ever since 2005, when the Cincinnati-based conglomerate scooped up a then-independent Gillette for $57 billion.
The Gillette reinvention had already begun when Coombe was appointed to run the grooming business in early 2018. He is proud of what his employees have done so far. He knows he needs them to pull off this transformation. He doesn’t want to scare them away, or make them worry about their future.
So Coombe emphasized that this is about making Gillette more competitive, not cashing in on valuable real estate.
“The next stage of that transformation is to make sure we have the facilities and the infrastructure in the Greater Boston area that we need to really win,” Coombe said. “Right now, we don’t, frankly.”
The seemingly inevitable reshaping of the South Boston campus may have more to do with the market forces in the shaving world, and less with the eager developers lining up on A Street.
The competition, to be honest, has been brutal. Gillette’s dominance has been whittled down over the past decade, in particular by direct-to-consumer outlets Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club. (Unilever now owns Dollar Shave Club, and Schick parent Edgewell is acquiring Harry’s.)
Under Coombe’s guidance, Gillette has fought back, beefing up Gillette’s mail-order market and rolling out new products such as the SkinGuard for men with sensitive skin.
The grooming business grew both top-line revenue and profit last quarter, the first time that has happened for two consecutive quarters in more than two years. But grooming, with its year-over-year organic sales growth of 1 percent, remained a notable laggard among P&G’s five distinct consumer-goods empires. Coombe knows his work isn’t done, not by a long shot.
Handled properly, the right real estate transactions could bring a new infusion of cash, to help invest in Gillette’s future. Gillette has been a fixture in Boston for more than a century. Coombe insists he wants to make the necessary changes to ensure the company thrives here for another one.