Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Tale Of Two Conservative Cities

Years ago in my sportswriting days I was always amazed at the number of major league baseball players that ended up staying in St. Louis after their careers ended.

These players had money and came from all over the country, and they could have lived in any part of the country. Now, 40 years old and a father, I certainly see why they chose our fair city.

St. Louis is a great town to live and raise children. No question. What makes it such a great place to live is its conservative nature. We feel like we're all one big family (Where did you go to high school?), and we know exactly what the future looks like. No, we don't have ESP. The future looks like the past. We know what schools will be good, we know which Italian restaurants to eat at, we know what neighborhoods to avoid, we can count on trips to Ted Drewes in the summer just as our parents took us.

It's slow paced and we like that. We don't like many changes and we don't like surprises (who really needs light rail, anyway?). In fact, if we could turn back the clock a few years and live life like it was 1990, we'd be just fine with that.

Here's the dilemma. While this is a great recipe for raising children, it's not so good for business.

An unwillingness to change (sometimes we even feel it's a badge of honor) isn't going to endear us with corporations across the globe. This conservative culture is also present in our businesses and it's holding us back. As our smaller companies and corporations (AB, for example) tentatively look to the future instead of taking more bolder approaches, the rest of the world is moving past us. And when they move past us, they usually buy us out and take our headquarters with them.

A local venture capitalist once told me about the differences between business leaders on the West Coast and St. Louis is simple to understand. He said: "On the West Coast, an entrepreneur that failed at a business in the past is seen as experienced. Folks embrace him and, with his experience, he usually does really well. In St. Louis, he's seen as someone who can't hack it in the business world, and no one wants to give him a second chance."

A tale of two cities. Can St. Louis remain a conservative town and still develop successful companies in this global economy?

Let me know what you think.

--Ron Ameln, SBM

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