Jacksonville represents several firsts for Kent Baker, the site leader at the GE Oil & Gas factory under development at Cecil Commerce Center.
GE’s choice of Northeast Florida for the plant brought Baker to Jacksonville for the first time.
The company’s selection of Baker as site leader gave him his first opportunity to start up a plant.
And a move to the area will give his young family the first convenient opportunity to visit Disney World.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start up a business,” Baker said Tuesday during an interview with the Daily Record.
“We’ve been embraced by the community.”
Baker also recognizes that GE Oil & Gas is becoming a major corporate player in Jacksonville through its name and its size, planning to hire at least 500 people by the end of 2016.
“It’s a lot of responsibility. We can do good things together. There’s a lot of opportunity to be successful,” he said.
Baker, 41, now is a site leader for GE Oil & Gas in Houston. He spends Monday-Friday in Jacksonville, hiring employees and setting up the operations that will start shipping out Becker control valves and Mooney regulators by February.
He’s hired 20 people so far and expects a large ramp-up early next year.
Some GE leaders are relocating, but the majority of the hires will be from the area, he said. GE has been finding the skills here. In fact, 30 percent of his hires so far are military veterans. Employees are hired in a team-based environment.
The Cecil Commerce Center advanced manufacturing plant is not GE’s first Jacksonville identity. GE Engine Services bought Jacksonville-based Unison Industries in 2002. It employs more than 500 people and designs and manufactures electrical components, sensors, and systems for aircraft, industrial, marine, military, and space uses.
Baker was aware of Jacksonville through Unison, but had not visited the city.
The Jacksonville position is the next step in his almost 16-year engineering and operations career with the industrial corporate giant.
A Cleveland native and the youngest of three children, with two older sisters, he knew early on he wanted to be an engineer. He took things apart to see how they worked and was curious to the point that his father once told a very young Kent to stop asking so many questions. A random stranger spoke up that asking questions was the way to learn.
“I was always very inquisitive,” he said, explaining that’s why he was drawn to engineering, operations and then leadership.
After attending public schools, Baker earned an engineering degree from The Ohio State University in 1996. He joined Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. in Louisiana in research and development, developing solid state welding techniques for the external tank for the space shuttle system.
After two years there, he started his GE career, which continued to expand his duties, education and horizons.
First it was GE Aviation, which he joined in Wilmington, N.C., and learned the operations side of business. After five years there, it was on to Boston for two years as a fabrication leader for marine manufacturing and then seven years in Durham, N.C., as a program leader for the final assembly of commercial aircraft.
While there, he earned an MBA in finance and strategy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The next stop, almost two years ago, was with GE Oil & Gas in Houston. Now he’s in Jacksonville. He was approached to lead the site and accepted.
Baker is house-hunting and hopes to be settled in January. His wife, Samantha, and their two sons, Jackson, 6, and Brady, 4, and their dog will move during a school break. As an engineer, he particularly appreciates the coincidence that his youngest son was born at 10:10 a.m. on Oct. 10, 2010. That makes him a 10-10-10-10-10 baby.
Baker and Samantha, who is from Boston, met in graduate school. She’s a pediatric neuropsychologist and hopes to practice in the Jacksonville area.
They also hope to visit Disney World now that they’re just a few hours’ drive north of it.
Baker knows that as the site leader of one of Jacksonville’s newest and largest manufacturing facilities, he will become involved in the business community. Groups are reaching out to help.
“The interactions have been very genuine,” he said. “It’s been easy for me to acclimate.”
He said GE Oil & Gas likely will become involved with the JAX Chamber and the First Coast Manufacturers Association. The company also will become involved with nonprofits through its GE Volunteers program, he said.
“Kent wants to be involved as much as is reasonably possible for him,” said Jerry Mallot, president of the JAXUSA Partnership economic development division of JAX Chamber. Mallot said GE Oil & Gas will be joining the chamber and JAXUSA Partnership.
Mallot said starting up an operation is a challenging time. He said Baker already has been invited to chamber meetings. “We are trying to give him a little breathing room and hope he will be immediately involved on some level that works for him.”
Mallot said it will be easy for Baker to be welcomed within the business community.
“There is so much excitement in the area about GE and about what they are doing and he will be easily assimilated,” he said.
“His biggest challenge will be to pick and choose what to get involved in.”
State Rep. Lake Ray, president of the First Coast Manufacturers Association, said the manufacturers and other organizations are working to help GE Oil & Gas find skilled workers.
“We think it will be a huge opportunity. It sets the stage for other companies thinking of relocating in Jacksonville,” he said.
Baker said the company is excited to be a part of Jacksonville.
A year from now, Baker wants to be able to say that GE Oil & Gas “is charging down a path of success and doing it as a team together.”