Centene CEO Michael Neidorff is the most powerful person in St. Louis today. He is also its most ominous with respect to the longterm future.
Neidorff has built Centene into an unbelievable juggernaut, grossing more than $100 billion in annual revenues and — by his account to Forbes Magazine — now serving "1 in every 15 Americans" as a national provider of government-sponsored health care, including Obamacare.
Neidorff's company is by leaps and bounds the largest publicly traded one in St. Louis. Just as important, it is growing exponentially, owing in no small part to Neidorff's genius in acquisitions and his ability to leverage government largesse through the exercise of political power.
From St. Louis' perspective, people should be concerned about a confluence of factors. One, for whatever reason, Neidorff has apparently developed a very low opinion of St. Louis. Two, he is a man who cannot be trusted not to act on that opinion. And three, abundantly superior alternatives await his company all over the nation.
Neidorff who moved to St. Louis in 1985, made his first dramatic appearance on the local stage this month with a brief, but enormously impactful media tour in which he trashed this region like no one before him. Had it been for a truly constructive purpose, I'd have applauded, but it was intended more to rationalize than resolve.
It was raw and, frankly, appalling. I say that as someone who agreed with almost all of what Neidorff had to say about the fact that this region is in trouble owing to deep-rooted problems for which no solution is in sight.
Yes, as Neidorff observed, St. Louis is wracked by a tragic crime problem and an image as a crime capital that is worse than the problem itself. Yes, the region's companies are constrained by its failure to develop a high-performance workforce, in part because of Missouri's bottom-feeder support for education.
Yes, St. Louis's infrastructure is abysmal with its underutilized airport and a light-rail system that people are afraid to ride. Yes, Missouri's failure to expand Medicaid coverage has sorely impacted the region, including his own company, which has as its base business Medicaid management for state governments.
Finally, and significantly, Neidorff dropped this hint: Even after 35 years in town, he purports to resent the insular nature of the social and business elite in St. Louis. Referring to Charlotte, North Carolina, which he has just announced a $1 billion investment in a new Centene headquarters, Neidorff observed on KMOX that "no one asks where you went to high school there."
So, what's appalling about what Neidorff had to say? Plenty.
Neidorff's presumed "wake up" call to St. Louis was a thinly veiled threat from a serial practitioner of that tactic. He has repeatedly threatened to move his Clayton headquarters if he didn't get what he wanted. In the early 2000s, he was embroiled in an ugly battle to acquire property that ended in the use of eminent domain, all the while threatening to leave if he didn't prevail.
Then there was that brief shining moment in 2007 when then-Mayor Francis Slay proudly announced he had persuaded Neidorff to move to Ballpark Village, only to have Neidorff mysteriously change his mind seven months later. It was all shrouded in customary secrecy.
It's unknown how many other times Neidorff has leveraged his enormous power over Clayton and St. Louis County, where his headquarters investment has been supported by at least $175 million in public funding that we know of. Sorry if I have trouble understanding why the intersection of Hanley and Forsyth requires public subsidy, but so be it. Neidorff's not having attended high school here didn't prevent that from happening.
Neidorff chose to unload his media tirade at the precise moment Centene was exploding onto the scene in Charlotte with a mammoth project that just happened to be supported by as much as $460 million in corporate welfare "incentives." What a pleasant coincidence.
But St. Louis' leader didn't just let the timing send a chill through the local business and political communities. No, Neidorff contrasted shattered St. Louis to the mecca of Charlotte, a shining city on the hill where skilled and educated workforce prospects abound and race relations are improving, where young people flock in droves for a better life and a brighter future for raising their families and retiring in paradise, in his telling.
Is there truth in Charlotte having a better climate for business than St. Louis? Sure. Would Neidorff be so effusive were it not for the nearly half a billion in "incentives" coming his company's way? Maybe not so much.
Meanwhile, back here in hell, Neidorff provided St. Louis no constructive road map or strategy, no plan of action, aside from the low-hanging fruit — vital as it is — of expanding Medicaid coverage in Missouri. The Seer of Centene just muttered about how we should work together, vaguely, indefinitely, to emerge from the slime of our pathetic existence.
And, if not, of course, Centene might just be forced to leave town for Charlotte, Neidorff told KMOX. At 79, he's likely just a few years from retirement. It would probably be the next CEO who would move it, I'm guessing.
The worst of Neidorff's rant was what he didn't say. He failed to accept a molecule of responsibility for where St. Louis is today, either as a presumed leader in the community, or as part of the elitist business community that seems to have fallen out of his favor as well.
This is a man who has demanded hundreds of millions in unneeded public assistance to expand business enterprises and then whines about the deficiencies of the school districts and other public entities pillaged in the process. Neidorff is hardly alone in that in St. Louis or nationally, but he ranks as a master practitioner of this nonsense.
Let's see, how could one be more insufferable? Oh, I know. How about making a big show out of your philanthropy on behalf of policing, education and other local needs that have been suffering because so many local companies like yours have allowed those to atrophy in the name of tax avoidance?
Public companies like Centene argue that they have fiduciary duties to their shareholders to grab every penny of public assistance available in fealty to that sacred mission of cutting taxes in the localities and states where they operate. Really? Then why spend untold millions in those very communities on self-aggrandizing lavish suites at sporting events, cultural institutions and the like?
Neidorff is spot on about the insularity of the elites, but that omits an important detail: He's not exactly an outsider. He was a long-standing member of Civic Progress, the group of 30 or so top companies that has long fancied itself as the guardians of St. Louis. In the fallout of his media tour, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch dropped the bombshell that Centene left the group in the past year.
Civic Progress is a shell of its former self, when it was a room full of men of great station who had built, or inherited, revered companies. Now there are a lot of branch managers in the room. But Centene's departure is ominous, as the organization would still seem its natural platform from which to work if saving St. Louis was its true priority.
Neidorff and Centene have done wondrous things in St. Louis, from a $25 million investment in Ferguson to all the other philanthropy. But if Neidorff is serious about saving this region, he and his erstwhile Civic Progress pals should make one more small expenditure.
They need to install some mirrors.
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at email@example.com or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).