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“Willis” Tower for Sale. Really?

“Willis” Tower for Sale. Really?

The owners of the “Willis” Tower in Chicago have announced plans to either recapitalize or sell the building formerly known as the Sears Tower, which for 25 years held the title of world’s tallest building.

For 36 years it was iconic and it was the Sears Tower, known worldwide. A marvel of construction, nine towers banded together to accommodate winds, with two of the nine towers reaching a height of 1,451 feet; 1,730 feet including antennas. Such is the genius of human ingenuity, and while unadorned, a thing of beauty in its own right.

“Willis” Tower? A virtually unknown name, and attached to a former icon, a total zero in the world. Why rename an icon? All done by a new owner for the sole purpose of luring an insurance broker into the building. “New owner” is even something of a misnomer, really we should say an investor. Investors buy and sell assets, which is great and wonderful – hey, I’m a capitalist – but when it comes to icons I wonder how far we should go with willful destruction of brand assets.

The investor is happy to take cash off the table, or leave entirely. No problem, do what works for you. But the name? We owned the Sears Tower name, and by we, I mean anyone and everyone in the region or anywhere else, who takes pride in place, or pride in great design, or architecture or just the accomplishments great people are capable of. And part of the accomplishment is that things get named. And they become known by their names.

So the investor sells, and what happens now? Another new name when the tenant eventually leaves, I guess.

Remember the sale of Marshall Field’s department stores to Macy’s? Field’s was a class act and an institution going back to the infamous Chicago Fire in 1871. Marshall Field vowed to rebuild on the same ground the day after the fire leveled the first store.  Macy’s? Please. The one thing the city insisted on was that the metal placard on the building’s façade could not be removed. So we’ll still have the sign even though along with a name change the quality of the former Field’s stores went down. This is not a tragedy on the same level of world-class icon, I’ll grant you. More a decision that also didn’t benefit Macy’s in the long or short run. I can just imagine some smart manager’s Powerpoint showing wonderful economies of scale from not having to support multiple brands.

And in my own business backyard we have exhibit A, American National Bank. My bankers throughout my formative years in business, a bank known as the bank for business, and run by an icon, Michael Tobin Sr., known as a banker’s banker, a guy whose word was his bond. Eventually, of course, the bank sold to a bigger bank, First Chicago, which in turn became part of what is now known as Chase Bank. But not before First Chicago squandered every last iota of brand recognition and brand power American National Bank had built up over years and thousands of relationships.

The funny part of the complete erasure of the American National Bank brand was a series of full page ads that someone in the marketing department at First Chicago bank decided to run in the Chicago Tribune. The headline read: “See? Nothing’s Changed.” The ad showed two banker’s business cards, identical except for the logo of ANB on one card and First Chicago on the other.

But everything had changed. First Chicago wanted nothing to do with many of ANB’s tried and true clients – they really only wanted to keep serving their big clients, not ANB’s middle market. So they lost the name and then proceeded to also lose the client base.

Brands matter, not just as a hood ornament, but because at great companies the brand is just the tip of the iceberg of a promise and commitment of something tangible and real.

I was just thinking about the Stonehenge site in the UK. It is grand, but I wonder if it couldn’t be, well, upgraded a bit? With investment, and a better name? What about Pepsihenge? Or Nikehenge? Wait – Bobhenge! I can pay them for it!

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At Least They Are Passionate About Budgets

Don’t you kind of wish American politicians would get this passionate about the budget and massive deficits? Give it to members of South Korea’s Grand National Party and opposing Democratic Party for caring deeply (ok, a little too deeply) about their budget. That’s the thing about entrepreneurs: we have to live within a budget.

Seoul, South Korea

Photo Associated Press. In Seoul, South Korea, clashing over a budget bill in front of the National Assembly

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“My Father is Li Gang!”

This has become a rallying cry in China against censorship; it’s also a bitter joke about avoiding responsibility. It comes in the aftermath of a tragedy as reported in NYT. A drunk driver was speeding along and struck some bicyclists head on, killing a woman named Chen Xiaofeng. The driver attempted to get away, saying “my father is Li Gang!” The accused son’s father, Li Gang, is deputy police chief. Chinese censors quickly suppressed news of her death, but it’s the age of the Internet and news leaked out. So now most Chinese know, but the government continues to censor commentary. It is an ugly reminder of economic opportunity without political freedom…

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Congratulations to Capella, InnerWorkings, Allscripts, & Morningstar for Making Forbes’ list of America’s 100 Best Small Companies

Forbes’ just released its list of America’s 100 Best Small Companies. Four companies stemming from founders interviewed in How They Did It made the list. The criteria for candidates include being publicly traded for at least a year, have between $5 million and $1 billion of annual revenue, and have a stock price of no lower than $5 a share. The rankings are based on sales growth, return on equity, and earnings growth in the past 12 months and over 5 years. See how the How They Did It portfolio companies measured up:

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Rich Meeusen Helping Solve the World’s Water Supply Shortage

While I was working on How They Did It: Billion Dollar Insights from the Heart of America, I was asked, why focus on entrepreneurs and why the heartland?

Entrepreneurs are the engine that fuels the world’s progress. Progress does not come from bureaucracy. I wanted to learn from the 45 founders I interviewed and present their advice, insights, and inspiration in their own words, because great ideas and great effort never stop – regardless of economic conditions.

After speaking with the founders, is was clear that some of the most remarkable companies now in existence were launched and grown in the American heartland.

And the need for great entrepreneurs has not diminished. Take the issue of the world’s supply of potable water, for example. Research shows the existing water supply is insufficient to quench the thirst of the current population of the planet. According to The Netherlands’ recent 2030 Project, the world’s supply of potable water is 4.3 trillion cubic meters (TCM), whereas the world’s need at present is 4.5 TCM. Due to this shortage, five million children die every year. By 2030, the world’s need will total 6.9 TCM yet the supply will still be 4.3 TCM. Entrepreneurs, I predict, are going to solve this problem. And there is one location worldwide that has a clear lead, supply of talent, and expertise in water technology. Where is it—Palo Alto? London? Boston? Moscow?

According to Rich Meeusen, chairman and CEO of public company Badger Meter, Inc. (BMI), and co-founder of the Water Council, the answer is Milwaukee. Born from a 100-year history of industry on the Great Lakes, manufacturing in Milwaukee revolved around “wet” industries like tanning and breweries. Of the 11 largest water-related manufacturing companies in the world, five are headquartered or have significant presence in Milwaukee. More than 100 of the leading water technology companies are located in Milwaukee, working on all aspects of quality, desalination, access and use.

The world isn’t making any more water – what we have is what we have. Big issues like these can only be solved through creative new technologies, ideas and processes. Companies being launched and grown right now are our best hope to solve these challenges.

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“The next big thing will not be invented here”

Intel CEO Paul Otellini warns “the next big thing will not be invented here. Jobs will not be created here.” His comments were made at the Technology Policy Institute’s Aspen Forum, and he says this is based on the US legal environment being hostile to business.

CNET’s story also cites Bill Gates’ speech in 2005 decrying curbs on immigration and guest workers that would provide a boost to research institutions in China and India.

What do you think?

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