A Conversation with John Warner by Andrea Ovans
The aerospace giant shifted its headquarters from Seattle to Chicago in record time. The leader of the effort tells how.
If you could move your company’s headquarters anywhere in the world, where would you go? How would you narrow the possibilities? By what criteria would you judge them? Before beginning, you mightwant to contact John Warner, the man who led the site evaluation process for Boeing, which just last month moved from Seattle to its new worldwide headquarters in Chicago. HBR’s Andrea Ovans talked with the senior vice president and chief administrative officer to find out what exactly was involved in moving a $51 billion company’s head office from a home it had occupied for 85 years.
Why didBoeing decide to move?
About a year ago, Phil Condit, our chairman and CEO, started conversations with his strategy council and other executive leaders about Boeing’s long-term strategic growth plans. In the course of those conversations, it became apparent that our headquarters needed to be in a neutral location, one not directly associated with one of the major units of the company.
Since Boeingwas founded in Seattle, and our commercial airplane unit is headquartered there, many people think of Boeing as only a Seattle commercial airplane company. But in fact, we’re a much larger entity. The company includes McDonnell jet fighters, Douglas commercial aircraft, Hughes helicopters, Hughes Space, North American Aerospace, and many others. So part of our strategic plans called for aheadquarters separate from existing businesses and focused on developing global growth opportunities.
Who is on the strategy council?
The council is made up of Phil; Harry Stonecipher, who at the time was president and COO and is now vice chairman; our CFO; our head of human resources; our chief technical officer; our general counsel; and me, the chief administrative officer. We deliberated on thedecision late last year, discussed it with our board of directors in December, and the board formally approved it in February. Then we had to act rapidly, as our goal was to move before the start of the school year in September. On March 21st, we announced our shortlist of three cities: Chicago, Dallas—Fort Worth, and Denver. Seven weeks later, we announced that we’d picked Chicago. It happened veryfast.
How did you narrow your choices down to those three cities?
Because of the nature of the business, we knew that we needed to remain in the United States. But we do business with 145 countries, and we have significant operations in 26 states. Seattle, southern California, Wichita, Philadelphia, and St. Louis—we have major operations in all of these sites. So we were looking for a placethat would minimize travel time throughout the country and internationally and that would also give government leaders and financial markets in Washington, DC, New York, and abroad access to us. We needed a central location near a major airport. Based on that consideration and a number of others [for the full list of the selection criteria, see the accompanying exhibit], we very rapidly narrowedour choices.
You were in charge of the site evaluation process for those three cities. How did you go about it?
First, we decided to go public with the search. Most companies try to keep headquarters’ searches secret. They quietly collect information, and when they announce that they’re moving, they’ve already picked the site. We saw that it would be impossible to gather all the data we needed insuch a short time without going public. In retrospect, making the announcement was very much to our advantage. We were given a lot more information than we even needed. Even though we said we were considering only three cities, I have a stack of material in the corner of my office that’s literally about three feet high from various places—big and little cities.
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