Friday, March 13, 2009

The Willis Tower, Macy's, US Cellular Park, and the dangers of hubris

Recently, the insurance brokerage Willis announced that it was becoming the lead tenant in the building soon to be formerly known as the Sears Tower (BSTBFKATST).

Let's reserve judgment on the branding and civic pride implications of this even in light of :

  • The boycotts of Macy's by loyal Marshall Field customers (we have it from a good source that the Macy's knuckleheads were implored not to change the name, at least of the State Street store, lest exactly this happen),
  • The failed attempt to get Sox fans to call their shrine US Cellular Park instead of Comiskey (or Cominskey as the local deese and dose guys call it).
  • The enduring resentment that Chicagoans have about talking about First Chicago as Chase (we note that the insular New Yorkers let the flyover bumpkins here keep their Chicago skyline checks and ATM cards, at least throwing us a bone).

Actually, let's not. The BSTFKATST will always be the Sears Tower. The Willis name will never stick.

What really gets us, though, is not the branding or civic pride issue. It's the short memories that the insurance brokerage leadership seems to have about the history of putting their offices in tall buildings to show the world that their dicks are bigger than their competitors'.

Years ago, Marsh, then the world's biggest insurance brokerage, moved into the top floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Aon, then the second biggest, moved into the top floors of the South Towers quickly thereafter.

On September 11, 2001, 295 Marsh employees and 60 Marsh contractors were killed. 175 Aon employees lost their lives.

We had the privilege of working with Aon's then Chairman Pat Ryan, and paying close attention to the actions of Marsh Chairman Jeff Greenberg during that time. Both were exemplary men who demonstrated genuine pain and compassion. We are not taking them to task for their choice of office space. Nobody expected an airplane to drive in the window.

Now that we know it's a risk, though, we question the wisdom of Willis's choice -- putting their employees in what is now the tallest building in the US. It doesn't make Willis bigger or better.

It just makes them a target.

And this from a firm that's ostensibly in the risk management industry?


Dief said...

Nicely written piece, as always, Stephen.

I tend to think that the bigger issue is not the employee safety one you ended on (one can only hope that the chaps at Willis ran the risk assessment numbers and made an educated decision), but the FIRST one you raised... that of the affront to Chi-Town's civic pride.

Landmark buildings/facilities SHOULD be named after the person or organization that had the courage and pride to build them in the first place (like TST, Comiskey Park in Chi. and The Chrysler Building and Gracie Mansion in NYC)... after an area it represents/pays tribute to (like the Empire State Building)... or after a famous person in the relavant field (like O'Hare airport and the John F. Kennedy Space Center).

Because these icons generally hail from that locale (or ARE that locale), their value as a "lapel pin" for their city only increases with time.

If properties are appropriately named in the first place (and have the meaning and value of which we speak), renaming them is either insulting or simply pointless.

To the list of wrongful or curious renamings you've started, I would add Reagan National Airport (formerly Washington National Airport) and The Robert F. Kennedy Bridge (formerly The Triboro Bridge). (Other additions?...)

The naming/renaming of major league ballparks is an especially hot subtopic, isn't it? You could devote an entire column to this stupid and selfish dance, which is an affront to all local sports fans (and taxpayers).

Nick said...


A well-written, nicely-reasoned argument.

But, aren't you implicitly indicting Aon as well? It's not as if "Big Stan"...excuse me...the Amoco Building...excuse me..the Aon Center is a low-profile building either?

I was in it on 9-11-01 and shortly after the second plane struck the WTC, I told my whole practice to go home and skedaddled myself.

Gregory said...

Dear King Ban: Does Blogging allow the use of the pronoun "we" to describe oneself? Or can you permissibly use the third person, a la Bob Dole? Please enlighten us. I mean me.