A Publication of WTVP

In the best selling book, Who Moved My Cheese, a parable is told of the life of four creatures in a maze. Sniff and Scurry are mice—nonanalytical and nonjudgmental, they just want cheese and are willing to do whatever it takes to get it. Hem and Haw, on the other hand, are mythical little people—mouse-size humans who have an entirely different relationship with cheese. It’s not just a lifeline for them; it’s their self-image. The story relates the different ways each react to having their cheese moved, and about how their lives and belief systems are built around the cheese they’ve found.

The point of the story is that we have to be alert to challenges in obtaining our cheese, and be prepared to quickly find new sources of cheese when the cheese we have runs out. From a practical perspective, it’s about our tendencies to settle into routines and rely on long-established methods and comfortable practices. As one book reviewer noted, its message is really simple: things change. They always have changed and always will change. And while there’s no single way to deal with change, the consequence of pretending change won’t happen is always the same: The cheese runs out.

One must wonder if the people of Seattle feel like a whole airplane full of their cheese is being moved. In one of the most compelling and surprising business stories to surface in years, Boeing, Seattle’s most prominent employer and its signature corporation, announced it will relocate its corporate headquarters to Chicago. In doing so, they will take with them much of Seattle’s identity. To say the powers that be in Seattle, the metro area, and all of Washington were stunned would be an understatement. Seattle maintains the news was unexpected and came with little advanced warning. Now, the community is left to pick up the pieces.

The Boeing situation, and the lucrative financial package (by one estimate more than $22 million in income tax breaks alone) assembled to lure the company, begs the obvious question: could something like this happen with Caterpillar and Peoria? What is the community doing now to anticipate change, manage it and put the pieces in place to ensure a business like Caterpillar never feels it necessary or in its best interest to relocate its headquarters and leave Peoria?

Let’s be clear that we don’t believe such an event is in the offing. The company continues to publicly state its allegiance to Peoria and, as evidenced by their leadership and involvement in numerous civic and business initiatives, appears to be content with its hometown. Indeed it is refreshing that this area has had ample infrastructure to support the evolution of Caterpillar from a small tractor company to the global leader in the earthmoving, industrial equipment and power generation industry. But symbolically, the bucket on a CAT wheeloader is slowly moving our cheese.

How are we adapting to the changing business and market conditions, and is Peoria doing all it can to demonstrate its commitment to this local employer of 17,500?

The comparisons between Boeing and Caterpillar are eerily similar. Boeing has manufacturing plants in different locations. So does Caterpillar. Boeing evolved its business beyond just commercial aviation. Cat has done the same by growing its engine and logistics divisions, among others. The presence of Boeing in Seattle has spawned the creation of many support industries. No one would argue that the industrial supply base, medical sector and other segments of the economy are greatly impacted by a strong Caterpillar.

If we look ahead 20 or so years, what improvements must the Peoria area have made to avoid, even hypothetically speaking, a situation similar to Boeing? Improved transportation services are among the obvious ones. Less obvious, but equally important, are to make it easier for Caterpillar to do business here by providing no-hassle permitting for expansions and capital improvements—among other things. A fix to our ailing public educational system and a robust telecommunications infrastructure will be critical as well. So will availability of jobs for spouses of Caterpillar recruits. In short, the community must anticipate change and enable its largest and most influential business to thrive.

There are some who might argue such a relocation would give Peoria the chance to start over, build a new identity and business base truly diverse and free of Caterpillar’s influence. The movie Roger and Me chronicles the changes at General Motors, and how the company’s decisions to invest elsewhere contribute in part to its hometown of Flint, Mich., becoming a bit of a ghost town. It is both an absurd comedy and a scary look at the dangers of relying too heavily on one engine to drive the economy.

The lesson to community leaders: don’t take anything for granted. Business is business. Companies will migrate to areas where it’s easier to do business, to move people in and out, where the business climate is conducive to running a global enterprise. Peoria fits this profile ably right now. But will we be ready when our cheese is moved? IBI