RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — A smile broke across the face of William Friday as he recalled IBM’s decision to build a facility in something called Research Triangle Park more than 40 years ago.

“They were the original settler,” Friday, president emeritus of the University of North Carolina and one of the state’s most widely respected leaders for over half a century, said. “IBM’s presence did everything to make the Triangle come along.”

Local Tech Wire sought out Friday and four-term Governor Jim Hunt to talk about Big Blue’s North Carolina presence as the firm prepared to celebrate its 40th anniversary in RTP on Thursday. And both hailed Big Blue as a crucial cog in RTP’s growth to more than 131 technology, biotech and research-linked organizations as well as more than 40,000 workers.

IBM isn’t stopping, either. The party included some surprise news — and another sign of commitment by IBM to the state.

Company officials disclosed plans to build a “multi-million dollar” wireless technologies center in the Park. Additionally, IBM said it had received commitments from the North Carolina Technology Association and Coastal Federal Credit Union to join its World Community Grid computing project and would donate two houses to Habitat for Humanity in Wake County. Some 700 IBM volunteers will help build the houses.

“Today is an opportunity to reflect on our roots in RTP, as well as our continued investment in our site and the local community,” said IBM’s top state executive, Rusine Mitchell-Sinclair, at the celebration. “The opening of our new Wireless Center of Excellence and support of local charitable agencies and the World Community Grid, show the innovation and compassion that helps make IBM in RTP the company’s largest site worldwide.”

IBM employs some 11,000 people in and around RTP. The company also has another 2,000 workers spread across Charlotte, the Triad and Wilmington. It also works with more than 3,000 contractors. (By the way, IBM notes its first presence in North Carolina was a sales office in Charlotte.)

The wireless center will open in early October with an emphasis on demonstrating how wireless technology works. A key point of emphasis is radio frequency identification (RFID) for use in tracking of shipments.

Past to Present

IBM’s commitment to RTP led to a peak employment of more than 14,000 at the high-tech boom in 2000-1. Its sale of the PC computing division to Lenovo this year and other cutbacks have reduced the payroll over the years, but there’s no doubt that IBM remains a huge economic driver for North Carolina.

“The whole economy of North Carolina comes largely from the Triangle,” Friday said. “The impetus for all of that goes back to IBM.”

Friday “went along” with the group that met with IBM founder Thomas Watson in negotiating its original RTP commitment. In a sign of respect, Friday recalled the IBM exec as “Mr. Watson”.

“That decision was the trigger,” Friday said. “The Triangle has become a bigger story than any of us every conceived it could be.

“Now, the Park is in a transitional stage. It once was a novel idea. Many others are trying to imitate it, to copy it.”

Hunt stressed that IBM’s importance couldn’t be emphasized enough.

“It’s the biggest thing that ever happened to us economically in the modern era,” Hunt told LTW. “We went from agriculture to textiles and furniture to manufacturing, but these basic industries have their problems.

“IBM’s coming here showed the world what kind of universities, educational resources and talented people we had in North Carolina. Others came in their wake.”

Facts and Figures

IBM used the celebration to stress some facts and figures about its role in the state’s economy:

  • $1.4 billion annual payroll

  • Average salary of $90,000 for RTP employees

  • 50,000 hours in volunteer time in public schools and with other groups

  • More than 1,000 North Carolina college graduates hired over the past five years

  • Some 10,000 retired IBM workers live in North Carolina, about half of those being in RTP
  • Corporate Citizen

    IBM has meant much more to North Carolina that just jobs, however. Hunt praised the company as being a strong corporate citizen in such areas as education.

    “IBM is a leader and has played a major role not only in making right decisions for our state but in helping us share a vision of what we should be doing,” Hunt said. IBM has been among many corporate entities pushing the state to improve its public education.

    “The IBM decision to come here told the decision makers of North Carolina that we have what it takes to grow, to be successful — if we have the education system in place,” Hunt said. “By coming here, IBM said ‘We believe in you and what you are doing’. It was up to us to take that decision and run with it.”

    Today’s RTP shows that the running continues.

    Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.