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THE NEW CORPORATE FRONTIER: THE BIG TOWN MOVE TO SMALL TOWN U.S.A. By David Heenan, McGraw-Hill, 262 pp., S19.95.It had …


By David Heenan, McGraw-Hill, 262 pp., S19.95.

It had to happen. In the past decade or so, there have been books suggesting that corporations relocate their headquarters to the Far East, books trumpeting the advantages of relocating to Mexico and Northern Ireland, and even books advising companies to relocate their operations to Outer Space (back in the days when the construction of the Space Station seemed imminent). Now, from McGraw-Hill, comes a book suggesting that corporations relocate to perhaps the most exotic locale of them all.

Scranton, PA.

Well, actually, the Greater Scranton-Wilkes-Barre metropolitan region, but you get the idea. Yes, in David Heenan’s provocative new book, The New Corporate Frontier. The Big Town Move to Small Town U.S.A., Scranton-Wilkes-Barre places No. 7 among the author’s list of “frontier boomtowns” experiencing a “rocket ride.” They are experiencing this rocket ride primarily because more and more corporations have elected to flee the problems of urban and suburban life and instead set up headquarters in what Heenan describes as “penturban” communities, and what people from cities and suburbs call the boondocks, the sticks, or even Podunk. Other penturbs in Heenan’s list are Naples, FL, Olympia, WA, Princeton, NJ, Portland, ME, Manchester, NH, Des Moines, IA, Wilmington, DE, Fort Collins, CO, and yes, the great-granddaddy of scorned hick towns: Peoria, IL.

Though some executives might be startled by the suggestion that they should pull up stakes and relocate to Scranton, a once-dying coal town that last enjoyed notoriety in the Flapper Era when bootleggers were active here, The New Corporate Frontier is actually a very interesting, extremely well written book full of useful, thought-provoking information. Heenan, the chairman and CEO of Theo H. Davies, one of Hawaii’s original Big Five companies, and a man who happens to have served on the faculties of both the Wharton School and the Columbia University Graduate School of Business, believes that “U.S. corporations are demonstrating a clear and growing preference to domicile in smaller, relatively remote townships… as part of a prevailing national trend to redistribute power-organizationally as well as geographically.”

Heenan further contends: “Command has shifted from, and will continue to shift from, the center (traditional, monolithic headquarters and large cities) to the periphery (so-called mini-headquarters and small- to medium-sized communities). U.S. companies that partake in this important trend will be better equipped to face the competitive realities of the 1990s and beyond).

In making his case, Heenan has a tendency to mix apples and oranges. Wilmington, DE, is a very short train ride to Philadelphia, and can hardly be listed in the same demographic or geographic category as towns such as Portland, ME, and Manchester, NH. Princeton, NJ, is an even poorer example of a penturb, since it is chockablock with executives who commute daily to Philadelphia or New York.

Heenan is aware that he is fighting an uphill battle in seeking to persuade a predominantly urban corporate population to jettison their Andy of Mayberry prejudices and give small-town America a closer look. Deftly sidestepping such issues as the special problems of minority groups asked to relocate to the provinces, Heenan paints an almost Norman Rockwell-like picture of life in the American hinterland. Inevitably, he sometimes goes overboard.

“Heartland values are definitely in,” he writes. “Business Week recently declared Peoria ‘in’ (along with babies and social commitment); New York (along with singles and materialism) was out.”

Business Week, of course, is the magazine that ran a cover story in the summer of 1988 wondering whether George Bush could “come back” against Michael Dukakis. Oh, boy. Business Week is the magazine that in 1984 ran a gloom-and-doom story about the government bond market scant weeks before the biggest treasury rally of the decade exploded. Rule of thumb: Never make a major corporate decision involving hundreds of millions of dollars and the lifestyles of thousands of employees on the basis of something you read in Business Week.

And be very careful when betting against New York City, as Heenan enthusiastically does. Yes, in his determination to build a case for his beloved penturbs, the author indulges in the kind of generic Gotham-bashing that goes in and out of style, to little real effect. Once a great city, Heenan states, New York “now reflects the collective depression of eight million souls.”

Oh, really? You want depression? Try finding something to do in downtown Scranton on a Saturday night.

Or check out that great symphony orchestra in Peoria.

And, while you’re at it, give us a full report on those wonderful pennant races that go down to the wire in Portland, ME.

We’ll be waiting on Broadway.

Joe Queenan is a contributing editor for Chief Executive.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.