Interview with Douglas Oberhelman, CEO of Caterpillar
As CEO of Peoria-based Caterpillar, Douglas Oberhelman is the most outspoken business leader in Illinois. On Friday, the company broke ground on a new plant in Athens, Ga., after a continent-wide competition for the facility. Oberhelman reveals in this interview that Illinois didn't even make the first cut and explains why he will not build any new factories here in the near future.
Doug Oberhelman, chairman and chief executive officer of Caterpillar Inc., talks during an interview at the East Peoria plant earlier this week. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune)
As CEO of Peoria-based Caterpillar, he has placed himself — and the issue of Illinois' fiscal crisis — centerstage through a series of sharp-tongued op-eds bemoaning the impact of last year's income tax increases on businesses.
By communicating through letter, Oberhelman has controlled the script.
His actions have added to the atmospherics.
On Friday, the company broke ground on a new plant in Athens, Ga., which will eventually employ 1,400 people, after a continent-wide competition for the facility. Oberhelman reveals in this interview that Illinois didn't even make the first cut and explains why he will not build any new factories here in the near future.
Below is the transcript of the interview. Edits were made for clarity, accuracy and to avoid repetition.
Q. Why have you chosen to spend any time on political issues?
A. I've got a feeling that my predecessors did not have to spend a lot of time on it. The environment has changed ... We have to have a voice in writing regulations that are fair to all sides. Sometimes there's a big push on, where things get so far along and it's too late. I think it's really the job of a CEO to get dealt in on those things.
Q. What regulations in particular do you see as unfair?
A. I come at it more in terms of the process of regulating. The momentum it seems is that governments around the world want to regulate more and more. We have shareholders, employees and customers to represent. In the debate over clean air for our diesel engines, we had been intimately involved with how those regulations were ultimately written. We were a player. We were listened to and ultimately heard.
Q. Do you think you've been heard in Illinois?
A. Yeah, I think I've been heard.
Q. What have the results been?
A. I hear constantly from our customers in Illinois. I was just speaking at the Illinois Asphalt Pavement Association in Springfield. A lot of our customers will thank me for voicing an opinion for business, for trying to create a business-friendly environment. It's just part of the territory as one of the largest employers in Illinois. We have more than 23,000 in the state ... I feel an obligation to all of our constituencies, when things aren't going the way we think they probably should be going, to speak up. That applies in Illinois or China. I'm going to China Saturday.
Q. It plays well with customers, but it can't play well with politicians.
A. I think in Illinois every single politician knows how bad it is. We have had leadership over a long period — bi-partisan leadership — that has failed its citizens. When you talk to politicians one-on-one, they don't disagree. Then they get into Springfield or Chicago, and things fall apart. For some reason, we haven't seen progress, starting with a balanced budget in this state.
Q. Do you think all CEOs should be as vocal as you are?
A. There are a lot of us who are speaking out on a lot of different things. Being the largest manufacturing employer in the state, that gives me a bit more of an obligation.