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I feel pretty safe in saying there will be no 50th anniversary parties in the Cummins Inc. downtown corporate headquarters next Wednesday. Or anywhere else in Columbus for that matter.
On Sept. 25, 1963, editors at the Columbus Evening Republican pulled out their biggest headline type to run on a Page One story. Across the top of the page the newspaper told its readers that “Cummins and White Motor Companies Agree to Consolidation.”
The headline size was justified. The news was big, especially in Columbus, where Cummins was the city’s largest employer and a good deal of the leadership in the city’s private sector consisted of Cummins executives.
The initial reports were reassuring to local residents, including one that Cummins Chairman J. Irwin Miller, a Columbus native and community philanthropist, would head the new merger.
They were also promising to Cummins shareholders. White’s annual earnings were substantially higher than those of Cummins, but the terms of the merger agreement gave Cummins a small but important measure of control over the merged company — 50.9 percent of the equity for Cummins versus 49.1 percent for the truck company.
There was one element to the story that was not reported on the pages of The Evening Republican in 1963. It was recounted years later in a single sentence on Page 210 of the official Cummins history “The Engine that Could” by Jeffrey Cruikshank and David Sicilia.
“Both companies agreed to set up a new headquarters in Chicago.”
As it turned out the selection of Chicago as the new corporate headquarters site never materialized. Neither did the merger.
The plan ran afoul of an official in the U.S. Justice Department who, after reviewing the agreement, expressed concerns about “some serious competitive problems,” according to an account in the company book.
Despite a number of entreaties from Cummins executives in particular, the initial evaluation was allowed to stand, and both companies announced that they were abandoning the merger.
Actually the abandoned merger marked a turning point in Cummins history. Cruikshank and Sicilia went on to report that in the aftermath of the decision the company embarked on a major recruiting effort, bringing in outstanding managers from outside the company. The effort not only gave new life to the company, but many of those executives became deeply involved in the community and played key roles in the development of Columbus.
One could only wonder what would have happened had the merger gone through and the corporate headquarters been established in Chicago.
“There’s no question it would have had an effect,” said Ben Bush, a retired executive and former corporate attorney for both Cummins and its chairman, J. Irwin Miller. “It would have been a very serious effect.”
Bush was involved in various aspects of the merger and relocation plans for the headquarters, but information about the project was tightly contained within the company leadership during the discussions that had begun in April 1960.
“There’s no doubt that the deal was of tremendous benefit to Cummins,” he recalled earlier this week. “At the same time, there was a deep personal impact on many of those involved. Don Tull (who was president of Cummins during the negotiations) was so personally invested in Columbus that it must have taken a real toll on him.”
Nevertheless, it was Tull who instructed Bush to begin the process of finding a new corporate home for the two companies.
“He came out of a meeting one day and told me to start looking at properties in Chicago,” Bush said. “I teamed up with Tommy Harrison (another Cummins executive who specialized in property management), and we scouted out several sites and found a strong prospect in a development near the Merchandise Mart.”
Negotiations with the developer ensued and reached a point at which papers had been drawn up for an agreement. They were never signed.
On April 25, 1964, representatives of both companies announced they were abandoning the merger in the face of opposition from the Justice Department.
In the following years the paths of the two companies followed different trajectories. That of White Motor took a downward direction. It got so bad that in 1980 the assets of the company were liquidated.
The fortunes of Cummins are well-known in this community. There were ups and downs along the way. One of the ups was construction of a new corporate headquarters in downtown Columbus that opened in 1985. Today it is the workplace for more than 900 executives and staffers. It has company in the downtown area with several office buildings either built or renovated to accommodate an additional workforce of approximately 2,000.
Maybe April 25, 2014, would be a good time for a 50th anniversary celebration in Columbus.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at email@example.com.
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