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EDITORIAL: Anthem’s silence about Indy HQ is cause for self-reflection

March 2, 2018

Let’s hope Anthem Inc.’s strange refusal to publicly affirm that it’s committed to keeping its headquarters in Indianapolis—which IBJ chronicled in a front-page story last month—is an example of ham-handed corporate communications, not a sign it’s about to bolt to another city.

Regardless, the situation should serve as a stark reminder to government and corporate leaders of the fragility of corporate headquarters. Just because a company one day seems ingrained in the community as a sterling corporate citizen doesn’t mean it will always be so.

Central Indiana residents need only look to the northern and southern parts of our state for evidence of this.

Fort Wayne native Ian Rolland loved his hometown, and when he was CEO of the that city’s corporate titan, Lincoln National Corp., moving it elsewhere would have been unthinkable. But then he retired in 1999, and, just like that, his successor transplanted the headquarters to suburban Philadelphia.

And it wasn’t that long ago that Columbus had two Fortune 500 companies. Cummins Inc. remains, but the other, auto parts maker Arvin Industries Inc., was scooped up by Troy, Michigan-based Meritor Automotive Inc. for $670 million in 2000.

The pairing was billed as a merger of equals, with the headquarters initially located in Troy but set to move to Columbus within two years, coinciding with the ascension of Arvin CEO Bill Hunt—who initially was the No. 2 exec at the merged company—into the top job. But amid corporate infighting and shifting board priorities, Hunt left the company and the headquarters never moved.

“Although initially protected by the terms of the merger agreement, many of the individuals employed in our corporate headquarters eventually suffered the loss of jobs or opportunities, for which I am deeply sorry,” Hunt wrote in a 2015 IBJ column.

It’s not clear why Anthem, one of three Indianapolis companies on the Fortune 500, isn’t pledging its loyalty to Indianapolis. It’s certainly unnerving, however, that the insurer is relocating its top brass from premier office space on Monument Circle to its nearby operations center at the same time it’s building the soaring, 21-story Anthem Technology Center in Atlanta.

Given the lack of information, it’s hard to say whether there is anything business or government leaders could or should have done to avoid this crossroads. Still, the situation underscores the reality that communities can’t take headquarters for granted. In addition to establishing strong relationships with top executives and boards of headquarters companies, government and business leaders must foster a climate that encourages the development of promising new businesses that have a shot at growing into the corporate titans of tomorrow.

Corporate headquarters can disappear for the most capricious of reasons, such as a CEO’s preference for where he or she would like to live. But economic development is a tough game, and it’s a whole lot easier to keep what we have than to win the sweepstakes of swaying companies based elsewhere to put headquarters here.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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