Maybe it's the small-town attitude of longtime residents, but there's something incongruous about driving through Lakewood Ranch, looking for the world headquarters of a $2 billion GE subsidiary. Past the banks, grocery stores and medical offices on Town Center Parkway, it looks just like the office buildings before it. But there's no mistaking the place once you look inside the lobby, with big-screen plasma televisions, a bank of security monitors and a guard to take visitor pictures for instant ID badges.
GE Security, maker of high-tech security products from bomb detectors to intricate camera systems, is the latest coup for those trying to attract big-time business to what used to be small-time Florida.
A wholly owned subsidiary of General Electric Company, GE Security has operations in more than 30 countries and has spent the last six years acquiring related firms to build itself into an industry leader. In the ever-evolving world of high-tech security, keeping up with technological changes and integrating old and new systems can promise almost unlimited growth potential. Recognizing the future benefits, state and local governments kicked in hefty tax breaks. Qualified Targeted Tax Incentives and the Enterprise Florida Quick Action Closing Fund through the governor's office helped lure GE Security, and both partners appear to be ecstatic with the marriage. CEO Louis Parker says the company plans to stay-and expand.
"This industry is still being defined, and we can help define it," Parker says.
GE Security currently has more than 6,000 employees worldwide, 260 of them at the Bradenton headquarters. The average salary of the local employee is $125,000, making GE Security a high-value business for Manatee County. Most of the 260 employees are executives, engineers, training personnel and researchers helping to develop new products. Manufacturing takes place worldwide, depending on the product and market. More than 1,000 people also come to the Lakewood Ranch headquarters annually for training.
Built through acquisitions aimed at consolidating the fragmented security industry, GE Security entered the Bradenton market in 2005 with the takeover of Edwards Systems Technology, a fire-detection-systems business the had just built its headquarters in Lakewood Ranch. Other companies swallowed up along the way included the Austin, Texas-based Interlogix, which specialized in video technology, and the Salem, Ore.-based Supra Systems, which develops lock-box and key systems for real estate agents and home use. Parker says that GE recognized the potential in bringing these disparate security operations together.
"It's a global business with approximately a $160 billion market worldwide, and it has a 7 percent growth rate annually," he says. "And it was, at the time, even more fragmented."
And Parker doesn't discount the effect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which boosted the security industry and led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. A number of corporations have beefed up their internal security operations, going so far as to hire former FBI agents for the newly created position of chief security officer.
"I think 9/11 certainly dramatically changed the industry. One of the most evident ways was that the CEOs of major corporations may have spent 1 percent of their time on security [before the attacks]; now they may spend 5 to 10 percent of their time on security," Parker says.
GE Security focuses on developing and servicing five core product lines: access control for commercial buildings, intrusion detection for homes, fire and safety systems, video surveillance in numerous settings, and scanning and trace detection, such as for explosives and drugs. The Lakewood Ranch headquarters includes a demonstration room that looks like the set of a science-fiction movie, with control panels, monitors, cameras and huge fire-detection system boards. They had to remove the entry scan portal-like those used at airports-because there was such demand that the machine had to be placed in the field.
GE Security's customers include retailers, banks, law enforcement, schools, the military and the Department of Homeland Security. The company is the largest provider to the Transportation Security Administration, according to Parker.
The staggering demand for security equipment continues to grow, Parker says. Look around carefully while shopping, eating or using public transportation in a big city, and closed-circuit cameras start to seem omnipresent. It's no accident that more crimes than ever seem to be caught on tape-or, more accurately, digitally on computer hard drives. Parker says the Paris subway system now has 6,700 cameras in constant operation. They are expanding the system to more than 10,000 cameras.
Besides the huge demand for equipment, a twin challenge is the rapid change in technologies. According to Parker, GE Security employs about 800 engineers, who spend about 70 percent of their time developing new products, integrating new technologies and figuring out how to marry older security systems with the latest gadgets. One of the biggest challenges is integrating life-safety, security and access-control functions so a building manager doesn't have to maintain a confusing set of separate systems.
With security fears more prominent, companies have actually found that their systems can be recruiting tools. "It's more than reacting to problems. It can be necessary to attract employees to have a safe and secure work environment," Parker says.
It was a ready-made building and a healthy economic environment that attracted GE Security to Lakewood Ranch last year. Parker says it made sense to use the Edwards Systems Technology headquarters after purchasing the company. But such a high-profile company had other suitors, such as Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore., vying to accommodate it in the move from its Interlogix headquarters in Austin.
Manatee County Economic Development Council executive director Nancy Engel says state and local officials worked tirelessly to persuade GE Security executives to locate here. If the company stays and creates the number of jobs promised, it stands to benefit from tax incentives approaching $1 million. Engel says it's more than worth it.
"The relocation created 70 jobs with the annual average wage of $125,000. Plus, they bring people from all over the world to get training," Engel says. "They're staying in hotels; they're buying food. That's pretty big for the community."
It also raises Manatee County's profile. Says Engel, "When a company like this chooses to be in this community, it makes other companies realize this is more than a retirement community. You can locate and grow a world-class company here. It validates what we're already telling them."
The move to southwest Florida has not been without challenges, however.
The sky-high cost of housing here does not help the recruiting process in an already tight labor market. GE Security spokesperson Connie Higgins says hiring has been only slightly affected by the housing prices, with some employees choosing to commute for the opportunity to work here.
"About 30 percent of the employees moved from the former location in Austin; others were hired from within other GE businesses across the United States and around the world; and we've hired a good number of people from the local surrounding areas," Higgins says, including Tampa, St. Petersburg and the greater Sarasota area.
The future of the safety and security industry will bring even more science-fiction fact and more cameras watching our every move in crowded public places. "Bio Guard" technologies are gaining momentum for use in enclosed places such as subways or high-security buildings. Machines constantly sample the air for pathogens that can be harmful and report back to monitors through the Internet. Port security is increasing as well, with companies like Starbucks using GE Security products to track movements of cargo containers.
For GE Security, there's more land in Lakewood Ranch that offers the potential to grow.
"We are always looking at opportunities to expand," Parker says. "And I'm looking to develop an evaluation and training facility for GE Security sometime in the future."