The air inside PTC’s new Boston headquarters building still carries a vague fragrance of recently dried paint.
But that’s all right. Chief executive James Heppelmann figured the company needed some freshening up. That’s why he moved PTC from obscure digs in Needham to a gleaming new tower in the Seaport District adorned with the company name.
“We wanted people to know our company better,” he says. “Now our logo’s right there and everybody in downtown can see it.”
With 2018 sales of more than $1.4 billion, PTC is one of the state’s biggest tech companies, a maker of engineering and product management software for manufacturing firms. Heppelmann arrived in 1998 by way of Minnesota, after PTC acquired Windchill Technology, a company that he had cofounded. He became chief executive in 2010 and has guided PTC into new specialties, such as the use of augmented reality software in factories and product service centers, and linking industrial machinery to the so-called Internet of Things.
PTC took up residency at the Seaport site in January, so it hasn’t been there nearly long enough to make the place feel like home. But the company’s bold design choices work to make it immediately feel unique.
In the round
There’s the building itself, a 17-story-tall ellipse designed by Boston-based CBT Architects to slice through the prevailing winds coming off the harbor. PTC occupies part of the third floor, and all of the eight upper floors. Each is a great oval that wraps around a central core, all of them with lavish views of the skyline or the Seaport. Swedish developer Skanska built it “on spec,” with no idea who would eventually lease the space. Several companies looked at the space, including insurance company Aetna. When Heppelmann learned that the insurer had taken a pass — he pounced.
“In a sea of kinda-plain square glass-and-granite buildings,” he says, “this one really stands out.”
Visiting customers will find PTC’s Seaport space a more enticing venue than the old Needham location. “We have about 1,200 customer visits a year, and customers want to hang out in a fun area,” says Heppelman. And so will potential employees, who’ll find about four dozen restaurants an easy stroll away. “The people we want to hire want to work in an area like this,” he says.
Welcome to the neighborhood
The work spaces at PTC take advantage of the building’s elliptical shape. Elevators and meeting rooms are clustered near the hub of each floor, while most desks are deployed closer to the great windows of the outer rim.
There are no offices. “A door is an intimidating thing,” says Heppelmann.
Instead, everybody works in “neighborhoods” where teams congregate at desks and tables. There are also “Brodies,” little one-person work spaces that surround the user like a mini-office and provide a smidgen of privacy. There are no assigned spaces, and all phones are mobile. There are lockers for personal gear, and video monitors display a map of unused desks, with icons that turn green to show which ones are occupied. Workers sit wherever they choose. It’s an ideal environment for “management by walking around,” and Heppelmann welcomes the chance to stroll and chat. “I probably know twice as many employees as I knew six months ago,” he says, “because I see them.”
First among equals
Heppelmann’s own work space on the 16th floor is only slightly different from that of his colleagues. While there are no doors to the PTC executive suite, there are choke points designed to make the area slightly more difficult to access.
“If the executives aren’t behind a wall or a door of any sort, we should at least find a way to give them some semblance of privacy,” Heppelmann says.
Once inside, the CEO’s work space is furnished almost exactly like the company’s other neighborhoods. There’s a standard desk —like all the others, it elevates so that workers can sit or stand. There’s also a Brody for semi-private work. Neither desk nor Brody feature personal touches, like sports memorabilia or baby photos. After all, says Heppelmann, “it’s not actually my desk. It’s the desk I usually sit at.”
At the helm
For something more distinctive, head to the PTC boardroom a few steps away. Here sits a table like no other, made from the timbers of a sunken ship found by construction workers while digging the building’s foundation.
“This is 250-year-old ship wood,” says Heppelmann. But don’t ask him the name of the ship or how it sank. Archeologists who studied the wreck found that it was a ship built in the late 18th or early 19th century, and that it sank sometime between 1850 and 1880. It was carrying barrels of lime, perhaps purchased in Maine, and upon arrival it caught fire and burned down to the waterline.
Once the archeologists had finished their work, the remains of the ship were acquired by Timberguy, a company that specializes in building modern furniture out of derelict lumber. The company worked with PTC to transform the wreckage. Now these wooden beams carry nothing heavier than a laptop. Still, they make a grand impression.
“I think it’s a cool table,” Heppelmann says. “It helps make the place special.”
Heppelmann’s favorite hangout is the Customer Experience Center, a long expanse of displays and demos that curve through a wide corridor on the 17th floor. This is where the company shows off its clients’ products, each of them enhanced in some way by PTC’s software.
“The new space now truly reflects the innovative spirit we’ve always had at PTC,” Heppelmann says.
PTC software pops up in all sorts of unexpected places. An Italian manufacturer uses PTC’s Internet of Things software to create smart beer taps that automatically notify the brewery that pale ale is especially popular on Wednesdays in March. A maker of advanced bicycles uses a PTC-based augmented reality app to display information about the bike’s features when a customer scans it with his smartphone.
Perhaps most impressive is a prototype crescent wrench that resembles something woven by insects rather than stamped by a forge. Heppelmann says that a PTC artificial intelligence program designed the wrench and ordered a 3-D metal printer to crank it out. The finished tool is just as strong as a standard wrench, but is lighter, uses less metal and looks much cooler. “No human could actually design this,” says Heppelmann. “It’d take all summer. But our software can generate it using AI and then print it.”
Heppelmann’s only worry is that in a year or two, the center will look much as it does now. After all, nothing is quite as boring as a display of last year’s new technologies. But Heppelmann’s not going to let that happen.
“We actually are bringing on board here shortly a curator to think about keeping this fresh and evolving,” he says. “If you came here a year from now, I want it to be different.”Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.