Share this article

print logo

Greatbatch move is full? of lessons to be learned

The folks in Frisco, Texas, sure pulled out all the stops for Greatbatch Inc.

The mayor of the Dallas suburb flew in to tour the Clarence medical device and battery maker's plants in Amherst and Clarence and meet with the company's executives. He and Frisco's economic development team had been working with the company for going on a year, he said.

"On the plane back, I was thinking, ‘OK, their mission statement is ‘Think.' We should consider, maybe, ‘Do.' Frisco's good into ‘Do.' You guys think, and we do," said Frisco Mayor Maher Maso as he welcomed Greatbatch chief executive Thomas Hook to town during a news conference on Thursday, two days after the company stunned people in its hometown by announcing that it would be moving its corporate headquarters from Clarence to Texas.

The mayor was at the news conference – beaming. So was the local congressman and a Texas state senator. All for a company that says it's just moving four jobs to town, maybe seven.? See why I'm worried?

No, there isn't much to beam about here in the Buffalo Niagara region. We don't have many corporate headquarters to begin with, and losing the home office of one of our biggest companies is a big blow to the region's prestige and its already fragile psyche.

Hook did his best to downplay the impact of the move, stressing that it initially involves only himself and three other high-ranking Greatbatch executives, with the possibility of three more heading south later on. He said the move will be a good thing for Greatbatch because it puts its headquarters closer to some key medical device customers, in a market that's a hub for the medical device industry. More business for Greatbatch's fledgling medical device efforts could mean more work down the road for its research and production staff in the Buffalo Niagara region and elsewhere. Frisco, too.

"It's a tough transition to make, but it's going to be good news for the facilities here, which have received an enormous amount of investment," Hook said. "I love Buffalo. I was born and bred here. I've spent most of my life here. Buffalo is absolutely an integral part of our growth trajector

But if you've lived in the Buffalo Niagara region for even a brief time, you've come to take assurances like that with great alarm, mainly because we've heard it before and seen it work out the other way. Four jobs today. Maybe three more jobs in a few months. Will it be 150 jobs in a year or two?

Hook says no. "It's going to mean more opportunities here in Buffalo," he said. "I'm hoping we have 150 more jobs in Western New York as we continue to grow the company."

I hope he's right. Regardless, losing Greatbatch's headquarters, just nine months after the death of its revered company founder Wilson Greatbatch, the inventor of the implantable pacemaker, stings because it's a company that was born here 42 years ago. It grew here to more than $600 million in sales and 680 local employees.

More than that, it is a poster child for the region's oh-so-difficult transition from heavy manufacturing to 21st century jobs that revolve around research, innovation and advanced manufacturing skills. Greatbatch is a beacon for what we hope to become.

"They're in the niche where we're recruiting companies," said Thomas Kucharski, the president of the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise business development and marketing group, which has been targeting life sciences as an industry where the region has a competitive advantage.

"There are plenty of reasons why this is a good spot for companies in the medical diagnostics business," Kucharski said. "We'll see what the long-term impact is. You just have to roll with the punches with these types of decisions and continue to carry the message."

Robert Attea, the chairman of Sovran Self Storage, was so struck by the announcement that he went out of his way to mention it to shareholders during the Amherst company's annual meeting last Wednesday.

"It's kind of sad to open up the paper and see a company that was born here and developed here, for whatever reason, pick up and move away," he said. "It's a sad thing because we have a great area."

Watching a video of the Frisco news conference, which city officials posted on You Tube, didn't ease my fears, either.

Hook thanked Frisco officials for making it "easy and attractive" for the company to move its headquarters to the Dallas suburb.

"We want to grow. We were looking for a community that wanted to grow with us," he said. "When we came down and visited here, we were blown away by the reception and what you've accomplished here in this community over the last 10 to 15 years. We felt, both philosophically and from a business standpoint, it was a wonderful match."

Local business people privately speculate that Texas' favorable tax climate – including its lack of a state income tax – may have played a role in the decision. After all, when you earn $3.2 million, as Hook did last year, New York's top income tax rate of 8.8 percent adds up to big money.

"Everything that they said in their press release in Buffalo was exactly what we in the state of Texas hope that people will feel about the community," said Texas state Sen. Florence Shapiro at the welcoming ceremony.

"Whether it's the state and the pro-business attitude we have, we hope that's part of it," she said. "We always talk about being pro-business and trying to bring jobs here; jobs that are progressive; jobs that want to make a difference."

"We would like to use you for our chamber of commerce brochure," Shapiro said.

Chances are, Greatbatch will be coming off chamber brochures around here.?