Friday, October 5, 2007

Can Biz Leaders Make Global Olympic Run?

Peter Ueberroth, who heads the United States Olympic Committee, may look like just another well-groomed and well-heeled business executive. But who knew he was actually "The Enforcer"?
Ueberroth's tough side came out last week, when he swooped into town and bluntly told Mayor Richard M. Daley and the Chicago-area business community they better throw it into high-gear if Chicago is going to win its race to host the Olympic Summer Games in 2016. In effect, Ueberroth told the civic and corporate leadership to shake the cow-town dust off their boots and start acting like a sophisticated global center that's eager to connect with members of the International Olympic Committee, which will decide which city gets the 2016 nod.
In one swoop, Ueberroth exposed the soft under-belly of Chicago's Olympic bid--local business' less-than-inspiring support for bringing the Olympic games here. To do so, Chicago will need to beat international hot spots including Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and Madrid--which are already making strides.
It's not that the local corporate powers don't want the games in Chicago. Publicly, they're all for it because they see the financial and marketing value of Chicago being an international showcase. Privately, however, business leaders note that the timing is not great and there's alot going on right now that makes it difficult for the corporate community to rally--I mean really rally--in support of the bid.
Here's some reasons why.
Start with the lingering Millennium Park hangover. Look at the names on the exhibits and architectural wonders at the new downtown park and you'll see the choice cuts of Chicago-area commerce. They include the wealthy Crown, Pritzker, Lurie and Wrigley families and well-known corporations, such as energy players Exelon and BP.
Remember, too, that the park came in way over budget (mainly because of add-ons), so corporate benefactors--including many of the major publicly-traded companies--were asked to increase their stakes.
True, anyone who has been to Millennium Park knows it's a huge civic success but its backers, most of whom are being asked to energize the Olympic bid, are feeling a little parsimonious right now.
Not that they don't want to make an Olympian effort, but they're concerned the giving has only begun--whether it's money, time or resources. Even rich people and corporations have to say "ouch" once in awhile.
Then there's fewer company pockets to pick. Chicago-based corporate headquarters are becoming as rare as a Chicago Bears win. Major companies such as JP Morgan Chase (formerly Bank One/NBD First Chicago/First Chicago), Bank of America (formerly LaSalle Bank), AT&T (formerly SBC Corp/Illinois Bell), BP (formerly Amoco Oil Co.) are headquartered in other cities and have to spread their largess around to a multitude of competing causes.
That wasn't as true some five, 10, 15 or 20 years ago.
So you have to wonder: Do such national and multi-national concerns, that have a regional office in Chicago, really care if this city gets the nod? Maybe.
And while fewer are giving, the companies and CEOs that remain are already being asked to do more to support civic, cultural and philanthropic efforts. The Olympics is one more heavy demand.
On top of that, some of the area's biggest corporate citizens have their own problems. For example, Baxter International is focusing on a turnaround while the Tribune Co., with its myriad of media outlets, is being bought out in a highly-leveraged deal that will salt its balance sheet with billions in new debt. I'd throw under-performing Sears Holdings Co. and United Airlines in that pot, too.
Job One is keeping their shareholders fat and happy. That's a formidable task.
In fact, it's a tribute to those involved that the Olympic bid has gotten so far.
Chalk one up to the sheer force of personality that is Mayor Daley, who apparently sees hosting the 2016 summer games as a crowning achievement and a pretty good economic development engine. Same goes for former Aon Co. CEO Patrick Ryan, who has taken the corporate point in bringing the games here.
But even this powerful duo can't go it alone for long.
Ueberroth The Enforcer is right.
If Chicago is to be a real contender, it's time for the business community to go from show horse to workhorse and to start deploying it's international contacts and resources for making Chicago's case.
But if Corporate Chicago can't afford to muster that support and energy, then the city's dream of Olympic glory will be over before it really began.


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