Centene chairman and CEO Michael F. Neidorff. Photo by Jon Gitchoff

Michael Neidorff just issued a wake-up call to St. Louis’ political and civic leaders.

The chief executive of Centene, the largest company headquartered in the area, announced Wednesday that he is spending $1 billion to build an East Coast headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, eventually hiring as many as 6,000 people there. In interviews after the announcement, Neidorff made clear that those jobs could have been created in St. Louis.

“I always want to expand here,” he told me Wednesday. “I love it here, but we’re not able to recruit all the people we want.”

Neidorff’s comments highlight St. Louis’ biggest economic handicap, its slow-growing workforce, but he said St. Louis is also being held back by a variety of other shortcomings, from crime to education to airline connections to racial divisions.

“When I’m looking for really good workers, I have to be able to put them in the location they want to be in,” Neidorff said. “There’s nothing I want more than for St. Louis to do better. Google ‘St. Louis’ and the first thing that comes up is the murder capital of the country.”

Neidorff said that during one recruiting visit, the wife of an out-of-town executive took MetroLink downtown to see the Gateway Arch. She felt unsafe, and her husband turned down Centene’s job offer.

Affected by experiences like that, Neidorff said he began looking at Charlotte five or six months ago and made the final decision on an expansion six weeks ago. He said he was impressed by the area’s growing population and by its political and civic leadership.

“People are willing to move there,” he said. “They like the quality of life. … I think people in St. Louis should be taking the high road and asking what makes a place like Charlotte so attractive.”

Centene employs about 4,700 people in the St. Louis area and isn’t done growing here. Its local offices, including the expanding Clayton headquarters, have 450 job postings.

Neidorff makes clear, though, that St. Louis shouldn’t take Centene for granted. He says that he has no plans to move the headquarters from Clayton, but that over the long run the company needs to be where it can find talent.

Centene is No. 42 on the Fortune 500 list, and this year’s acquisition of WellCare Health Plans should push it higher, with revenue of more than $100 billion.

“I need to be able to attract the kind of senior people that help me manage that growth and take us to the next level,” Neidorff said.

Neidorff emphasized that he’s trying to be constructive, not bash his hometown. He and Centene have been major contributors to charitable causes here, and he praised County Executive Sam Page and Mayor Lyda Krewson for agreeing to corporate-funded reviews of police procedures in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests.

Krewson, Page and other local leaders should have no illusion, however, that the region’s largest company is happy with the status quo. Neidorff is serving notice that if things don’t improve, we could someday lose another big corporate headquarters.

Neidorff’s comments, interestingly, came just a week after officials celebrated Accenture’s decision to put a 1,400-person technology center in Town and Country.

That win showed that St. Louis can be attractive to 21st-century employers, but ultimately we can’t grow without addressing a number of deep-seated problems. The region can’t afford to ignore Neidorff’s call to action.

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