McClellan: To Understand St. Louis’s Past, Understand the Magical Kingdoms | Bill McClellan


Last week, this newspaper published its annual “Top Workplaces” report.

For this feature, employees rate their employers. What are the best places to work? The answers speak to the heart of a community.

Shortly after arriving here in 1980, I went to Jefferson County to interview a down-on-his-luck young man. I asked about his background. He told me he grew up in the city. He said both of his parents were bottlers at the brewery. He quickly added: “But I wasn’t brought up to think I was better than anybody else.”

I was stunned. Why would he say that? I didn’t understand because I didn’t understand Saint-Louis.

The Anheuser-Busch Brewery was once a magical kingdom. The people who worked there loved it. Oh, there will always be someone unhappy, but for the most part people were proud to work at the brewery. They were well paid. They made the best beer in the world. Gussie Busch was loved not only by the employees, but also by the population.

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Every Christmas season, beer trucks traveled through town and county, dropping off cases of beer for friends of the brewery. And there were many of them. The judges have beer. High-ranking cops have beer. The aldermen have beer. Even a few journalists got beer.

By the way, the brewery also owned the Cardinals.

The brewery wasn’t the only magic kingdom. Ralston Purina was another. Checkerboard Square was the name of its headquarters. Think Emerald City in red and white tiles. The last day of the fiscal year was celebrated as Checker Day. There were sketches and songs. Managers ate dog food on stage while employees, many of whom were dressed in plaid, cheered.

A reporter from this newspaper covered a Checker Day in the late 1970s. The highlight was when an actor posing as George Patton arrived by helicopter and presented the “Checkers Cross” to R. Hal Dean , the CEO of Ralston-Purina.

R. Hal Dean, Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board of Ralston Purina Co., gestures as he delivers his state of the company address at the annual Auditor’s Day rally. Dean told employees the St. Louis-based company finished its second-best fiscal year. Photo by Lloyd Spainhower/St. Louis Post-Expedition

Lloyd Spainshower

By the way, when the Blues were in financial trouble in 1977, Ralston Purina bought the team. The old stadium on Oakland Avenue has become the Checkerdome.

A defining trait of Magical Kingdoms was employee longevity. The people stayed. It was very common. Company bosses came out of the ranks. Hal Dean, for example, started at Ralston Purina as a clerk in the grain department in 1938. Thirty years later he became CEO.

This diary was a magical kingdom when I arrived. We had hundreds of employees. We enjoyed friendly competition with a rival kingdom down the street, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

Friendly between workers, that is. I can’t speak for business leaders.

Famous-Barr was a magical kingdom. Just like Ozark Airlines. There was a lot.

In addition to employee longevity, there was another commonality between these magical realms, and that’s only apparent in retrospect. Fragility. They all seemed strong and safe, and there was a feeling that they would go on forever, but they weren’t and they didn’t. Gussie’s eldest son sold the business to InBev, a Belgian-Brazilian company. William Stiritz, Dean’s successor, sold the Blues, canceled Checker Day and stripped the frivolity – some might say the magic – of the business before breaking it up into more digestible chunks.

What was left of Ralston Purina was gobbled up by a Swiss company.

It wasn’t just a St. Louis thing. Consolidations and mergers and acquisitions have taken place across the country. All major cities no longer had their own corporate titans.

Some people would say that this process was good for the shareholders. Maybe it was.

Anyway, things have changed.

Now let’s move on to the current list. The top four companies in the large business category are Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Select Properties, Daugherty Business Solutions, CarShield and Charles Schwab.

The top four in the mid-size business category are law firm Brown & Crouppen, Wood Brothers Realty, Benjamin F. Edwards & Co. and Hoffman Brothers Heating, Air Conditioning, Plumbing, Electrical & Appliance Repair.

In the small business category, the top four are Top Flite Financial, Twain Financial Partners, KellyMitchell Group and Krilogy.

None of the remnants of the ancient Magic Kingdoms were on the list.

It’s as if the days of the dinosaurs are over and smaller, more agile mammals have taken over. Mammals are better adapted to today’s economic conditions.

Congratulations to the winners. And to their employees, a word of warning – things are more fragile than they appear.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that Ralston Purina stopped the Blues from moving to Saskatoon. Los Angeles businessman Harry Ornest actually deserved the credit, back in 1983.


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