It was a “shot across the bow,” as one area leader called it.
The day after the largest company by revenue in the region, Centene Corp., announced it would build a $1 billion eastern headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, and hire as many as 6,000 people there over the next decade, CEO Michael Neidorff gave several interviews to local media outlets. He offered a sharp critique, which he said was intended to be constructive, and one concern was clear: his efforts at recruiting top-notch talent to the region were being hurt by crime and the image it gives St. Louis.
Google “St. Louis,” he said, and “murder capital” comes up.
He needed something different, if he hoped to continue growing his company here.
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“I believe in being honest and candid,” Neidorff said during an interview on KMOX (1120 AM). “Charlotte is an alternative and a viable alternative if we can’t fix things here. And I believe we can. It’s not something that has to happen in one day or one month. It’s a process.”
No matter his motives, Neidorff has top leaders in town talking. Some say they were surprised by his comments, and worried that they could further hurt the region’s reputation. Most agree his concerns are valid and his concern for the region genuine, pointing to Centene’s local contributions, such as a $25 million center in Ferguson shortly after the civil unrest following Michael Brown’s 2014 death.
And they note that Neidorff, despite his criticisms, has said the Centene headquarters aren’t moving. The company is still building a $700 million addition to its Clayton campus. Still, Centene, which employs 4,700 here, has been expanding dramatically, and expects revenue of more than $100 billion this year — more than twice what it took in just three years ago.
When he was leading the St. Louis County Economic Council, Denny Coleman sometimes heard from local executives before they would build campuses in other cities. They often told local leaders not to worry.
“It was along the lines of, ‘let’s not put all our eggs in one basket,’” Coleman said. “The difference here is that Michael has chosen to give a bit of a critique of St. Louis along with his decision.”
Sometime in the last year, Neidorff decided to leave Civic Progress, the club of top local CEOs that used to set the civic agenda. Some sources said he quit the group around December, despite an effort to talk him out of it.
The subtext, some said, appeared to be his frustration with local leadership. The business and economic development landscape is fragmented. City and county political leaders are not always on the same page, and Missouri government is dominated by rural, low-tax interests that see little incentive in helping solve St. Louis problems.
Mayor Lyda Krewson, elected with just a third of the vote in 2017, has been hurt politically by protests demanding her resignation after she read the names and addresses of some people demanding the city close the Medium Security Institution, the jail known as the workhouse. St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, appointed by the County Council after his predecessor’s indictment and resignation, is in the midst of a contentious, four-way primary campaign.
A year ago, in an interview asking what has changed in the five years since the Ferguson uprising, Chris Krehmeyer asked: “Who convenes us?” The head of the nonprofit Beyond Housing, which works in the poorest communities of north St. Louis County, still isn’t sure.
“I really couldn’t tell you what our priority for the region is,” he said. “The interesting thing is, no one’s disagreed with (Neidorff).”
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How much Neidorff’s comments are frustration with the crime issue or local leadership, and how much the company’s rapid growth or political expediency plays in is difficult to say. Neidorff’s departure from Civic Progress could signal something — be it a clash of personalities or frustration with local civic leadership. Company representatives did not respond to inquiries.
Neidorff said on KMOX he’s hired 2,000 people virtually in the last two months and has 2,400 job openings now. Unlike St. Louis, Charlotte is growing rapidly and could overtake St. Louis soon. Plus, a similar announcement 18 months ago didn’t generate the same stir locally. In February 2019, Centene dedicated a new western headquarters in Sacramento, California.