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Thursday, April 27, 2017 12:21 am

White-collar flight

Cat is leaving Peoria for a prettier woman

Caterpillar’s longtime headquarters in Peoria.
PHOTO BY JOHN J. KIM/TNS

 

For 90 years, “Caterpillar” was just a different way of spelling P-e-o-r-i-a. But the company has decided to move its entire executive team of some 300 people out of the River City to Chicago’s northern suburbs. The mayor called the decision a kick in the gut, and well he might. Without these corporate Olympians, a town that always prided itself on being a second-class factory town will find itself a third-rate one.

Why? And why now? The new CEO wanted to make its execs “more accessible to our global customers, dealers and employees,” and that meant moving closer to O’Hare Airport. Like most things big-company CEOs say for public consumption, this is not to be taken at face value. The company has been doing business globally from Peoria since before World War I, when it shipped machines to Argentina, Canada and Mexico, and Deerfield has been 20 minutes away from O’Hare since about 1958.

Cat was feeding the press the same pap that ADM fed them when it moved its elites to Chicago in 2013. (See “Pennies and nickels,” Oct. 10, 2013.) Journal-Star columnist Nick Vlahos wasn’t hungry. “We trust there were better reasons for this move than proximity to Whole Foods Market or Saks Fifth Avenue,” he wrote, his tone suggesting that he knew very well there were not. Vlahos knows that even if Peoria had a Whole Foods, it would still be in Peoria.

Let us be frank. It is not having to travel from Peoria to O’Hare to make a business trip that pains our titans of business, it’s having to go back. Deerfield will be a balm to the souls of sensitive men (they are mostly men) who are tortured by the drear and dereliction of the old factory city. Nothing in Deerfield offends the eye. Nothing enchants or intrigues the eye either, unless one really, really likes pastel golf shirts, but immigrant vice-presidents will think they are in a meadow of wildflowers.   

It’s possible that I overestimate the aesthetic factor. The Cat man’s idea of a scenic landscape, after all, is a strip mine the size of Christian County. Perhaps the real motive for the move is a deep longing to gather with members of one’s own tribe. In spite of its vaguely socialistic motto (“The community that lives and works together”), Deerfield is literally a company town. It is home to the headquarters of dozens of firms, including giants like Walgreens, Baxter Healthcare and Mondelēz International, the owner of Nabisco and many other brands, and Allstate is next door in Northbrook. Deerfield is accustomed to the vagabond ways of the modern CEO and is untroubled by them, because when they lose one they always get another to take its place. Caterpillar, for example, will take over the former headquarters of upscale booze maker Beam Suntory, which recently moved its global headquarters to Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, which is 52 minutes away from Deerfield, Beam Suntory deciding that Deerfield is no place to run a big company from.

Folks, they pay these guys big bucks to make these decisions, because ordinary people can’t make sense of such things.

What is significant to Cat about Deerfield, I suspect, is not that it is pretty or that it is near O’Hare, but that it is populated almost wholly by corporati. Everyone one meets works in a suit or for a suit. They have suit values and suit aspirations. Their kids are born wearing suits and their wives serve braised suit or suit gratin for dinner. For such folks -- one of whom, remember, was Montgomery Ward VP Dan Walker -- Deerfield is a Good Place to Live.  

Life in Peoria, meanwhile, will become a Less Good Place to Live. The executive corps of any largish firm will be better educated (if not necessarily more sophisticated) than the norm. The more enlightened firms – and in most ways Caterpillar is enlightened – expect their top people to “get involved” in civic organizations and charities. I recall the invigorating effect on Springfield of the 350 or so executives and engineers that Illinois Bell brought to town in 1960 to set up and run its new long-distance switching operation. One Bell senior exec reassured Springfield that “telephone people” have “an unusually fine record for good citizenship. I know the new headquarters people will want to do their part . . . in helping make their new home town the best place there is to live and work.” And many of them did, because they have the money and the energy and the ambition and the savvy that every town needs.  

Scott Simon reminded his listeners of this on a recent Weekend Edition Saturday program on NPR. “Who will now buy box seats to cheer the Peoria Chiefs?” he said. “Or support the Peoria Symphony, now in the middle of its season, the Peoria Children’s Museum, the Corn Stock Summer Theater, the Peoria Zoo, the Players Theater . . . and the Peoria Riverfront Museum and its huge glass tank filled with silvery striper, trout, walleye, and channel catfish from the Illinois River?”

Who indeed?

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.


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