You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief in Peoria last month when Caterpillar’s top executive said the company would not move its corporate headquarters. The prospect was in the air, however mistakenly, because earlier he publicly criticized Illinois’ business climate.
Truth is Peoria should have been holding its breath a few years earlier. That’s when a new chairman and CEO was being chosen at a time, according to the Wall Street Journal, that Cat’s board was discussing whether more outsiders should fill top leadership positions to build the company’s global market share.
Thankfully for Peoria, the top job went to Doug Oberhelman, an Illinois native who started at Cat shortly after graduating from Decatur’s Millikin University in 1975. Although his career has taken him overseas, Peoria has been home for about 30 of his 37 years at Caterpillar. In short, his selection was pivotal to Peoria because Oberhelman and his family have a personal history and commitment there. He knows how important Cat is to Peoria.
Which leads me, as we approach Thanksgiving, to the subject of things to be thankful for in McLean County. This place wouldn’t have grown if railroads hadn’t come through here. Bloomington-Normal would be a lesser place if Illinois State University was located elsewhere. And it would be much different if G.J. Mecherle hadn’t launched State Farm here.
I’m a little hesitant to write about State Farm because it employed me for 19 of my 41 years of full-time employment in Bloomington-Normal, and I worked with its CEO most of that time. But I can safely state the obvious: McLean County has benefited from having three Bloomington-born generations of the Rust family lead State Farm. While technology has allowed it and prudence has caused it to locate support operations throughout the U.S. and Canada, State Farm has never considered moving its headquarters from Bloomington. For that, we can be thankful.
Most locals — even most of its employees — don’t really understand how significant the local insurance industry is in terms of the whole U.S. economy.
Country Financial is big. It’ll do about $1 billion worth of auto insurance business this year, making it the 23rd largest car insurer in the U.S.
State Farm is massive — about 30 times the size of Country, roughly twice as big as Allstate (the nation’s second largest car insurer) and about as big as Geico and Progressive combined. State Farm also is the nation’s largest insurer of homes, with about a fifth of that $74 billion industry. And it’s a big life insurer.
So what’s the point?
State Farm and Country are obviously hugely important to the local economy. But they’re also players on the national landscape. State Farm, for instance, loans billions to help finance city, school and state government projects across the nation. And when there’s a major weather event, the Bloomington-based firms are there with a ready checkbook to help individuals, communities and economies recover.
Just something to think about as you drive past their buildings — and sometimes get delayed by the traffic.