Final Analysis: Wont You Come Home, Bill Boeing?

How can we celebrate such a momentous birthday when the honoree doesnt even live here?

June 15, 2016By John Levesque

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Elsewhere in this month’s issue youll find congratulatory notes honoring The Boeing Company on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. Allow me to add my own felicitations.

I just wonder if we all might get a little more jazzed about this upcoming centennial the actual date is July 15 if Boeing were still an honest-to-goodness Seattle company.

Sure, it still employs nearly 80,000 people in the Puget Sound region and helps drive our economy. But the day 15 years ago when Boeing announced it was going to move its corporate headquarters to Chicago is the day it essentially placed thumb to nose and said, Buh-bye. Were bigger than Seattle.

I remember thinking at the time, This makes no sense. It still doesnt. It was a move calculated by a CEO more interested in expediency than in legacy. Former Boeing CEO Phil Condit said it wasnt unusual for a big corporation to have its headquarters distant from its factories. What we are doing is being done for the benefit of the corporation, Condit told shareholders at the time. We want to grow The Boeing Company. If headquarters is to do its job, it must stand separate from any one of the business units.

Seriously? Boeing is hardly a conglomerate. Despite the acquisitions of recent years, Boeing is and always will be a maker of airplanes and other things that fly through air and space. Condit wanted Boeing to be another United Technologies or another Textron, but Boeing was really more of a true conglomerate in the 1930s, when it operated airlines, engine makers, propeller companies and other enterprises before the feds put the kibosh on all that vertical integration.

Boeing has prospered and has helped thousands of Puget Sound families prosper for generations. To suggest that the company is better off by having its corporate headquarters 1,700 miles from its main factories and most of its employees is just silly. Whats more believable is that Boeing wants to isolate itself from the fallout as it continues to ship jobs from Washington to less union-friendly states like South Carolina and Oklahoma. Since November 2012, Boeing employment in Washington state has declined by more than 10 percent around 8,600 jobs despite spectacularly generous tax incentives extended by the state Legislature to persuade Boeing to keep production of the 777X airliner in state.

Its this kind of thank you and the decamping of the corporate HQ staff to Chicago that rubs Seattle the wrong way. We should be jumping up and down, waving balloons and having parades in Boeings honor next month. But am I the only one who gets the feeling that Boeing is still doing business in Washington state because it simply doesnt want to spend the stupid sums of money it would take to move its Renton and Everett operations to cheaper right to work states?

Condit changed the culture at Boeing, and, judging from the difficult launch of the 787 Dreamliner, its a culture change that didnt take. Im inclined to believe his predecessors from Bill Boeing on would never have moved the company headquarters to Chicago, and Id be willing to bet that the people who run the commercial airline business here would rather have the 500 or so headquarters people back in Seattle where they belong.

Whether that ever happens depends on what Boeings future CEOs value more: being proud of Boeings remarkable history or being fearful that its remarkable history somehow diminishes its opportunities.

John Levesque is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine. Reach him at john.levesque@tigeroak.com.