Caterpillar Oberhelman 102209
Doug Oberhelman, chairman and CEO of Peoria-based Caterpillar. (AP Photo/Caterpillar Inc.) HO

When the owner of Jimmy Johns sandwich company said he was considering moving his headquarters out of Illinois because of the poor business climate in this state, eyebrows were raised.

But when the chairman and CEO of Peoria-based Caterpillar said the heavy-equipment manufacturer is considering pulling out of Illinois, it had people jumping out of their seats.

To paraphrase an old E.F. Hutton commercial, when Doug Oberhelman talks, everyone listens.

And listen they should — especially Gov. Pat Quinn, to whom Oberhelman directed his letter.

This should be a major wake-up call on the need for Illinois to change directions and work more closely with the business community.

Caterpillar is a major employer in Illinois, with about 23,000 workers here. That includes a plant in Pontiac.

The departure of even one of Caterpillar’s plants would be a major blow to a state that cannot afford any more blows to its workforce, or to its reputation.

If Caterpillar packs up and moves to another state, it would have a devastating ripple effect.

More than jobs at Caterpillar would be lost.

Many people who don’t work for Caterpillar still count on it for their jobs — they work for suppliers and as service providers; they work in businesses that have Caterpillar workers for customers.

The ripples from a Caterpillar pullout also would have an impact on the state’s reputation, solidifying the perception that Illinois is anti-business. And it could cause more Illinois-based companies to follow Caterpillar’s example.

Rather than consider Oberhelman’s letter as a threat, Quinn should consider it an opportunity.

Oberhelman clearly states, “I want to stay here.”

And while he criticizes the direction in which the state is headed, Oberhelman also wrote, “I’d like to work with you to change that.”

Expanding on that, a Caterpillar spokesman said the company wants to be involved in finding solutions. “I view it as an olive branch to offer our help,” said spokesman Jim Dugan.

Quinn should take the olive branch — and he shouldn’t take any Illinois company for granted.

Oberhelman said he is being “wined and dined” by representatives from other states, including receiving letters from their governors.

Illinois needs to be equally aggressive in letting its current businesses know they are appreciated and the state wants them to stay — and even expand.

The best way to show that appreciation is by listening to what businesses are saying. Really listen.

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