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Former Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman touts plan to fix what ails Peoria by attracting more executive talent

Peoria skyline
Emily Bollinger
Peoria skyline

Former Caterpillar CEO and chairman Doug Oberhelman wants to attract more business executives to the Peoria area.

The new "Choose Greater Peoria" talent attraction strategy is helmed by the Gilmore Foundation and Greater Peoria Leadership Council, in collaboration with marketing firm Simantel.

Oberhelman, who remains a resident of the Peoria area in retirement, said the region has issues with talent attraction and retention. Part of the issue, he said, is getting them here in the first place. He also advocates changing the region's brand through a "Positive Peoria" campaign.

Choose Greater Peoria / Gilmore Foundation / Greater Peoria Leadership Council / Simantel

Oberhelman said the area has great assets, but it has to do better in competing against other regional cities like Bloomington, Champaign, and Rockford.

"We all need to punch more than we're punching our weight around the community and the region. We all know we have so many things to offer. We all know what the geography is here. We all know the things that have gone on. We've all been down on ourselves a little bit with the with the departure of Caterpillar," he said.

Shortly after Oberhelman stepped down from Caterpillar leadership, the company announced it was moving its world headquarters to the Chicago area. More recently, the headquarters relocated to Texas.

The strategy specifically targets highly-educated professionals ages 35-64 who make $117,000 or more and are willing to move to Peoria. The plan assumes this audience cares about their lives outside of work, spending time with family, community involvement, and volunteerism.

"The HR leaders themselves are claiming they can't do it on their own. There's not enough funding with any individual organization or not enough resources," said Misty Dykema, principal and co-owner of Simantel. "But if we all come together, and help all ships rise, we can really cut down the amount of time it takes to get that talent here, the amount of cost that it takes, and really just sort of fill the pipeline more quickly."

The group's research found it currently takes four to six months for human resources professionals to hire, at a cost of $25,000 to $35,000 per hire. The timeline and costs increase as the position becomes more senior.

The research found that HR professionals need help selling talent on the merits of Peoria. The way Peorians view their own community may play into that perception.

"One of the most interesting things was in comparing other communities on the internet, most of the negative comments about Peoria were from Peoria residents," Oberhelman said. "I don't know about you, but I go to Rochester, Minnesota often. You arrive there, the first thing you feel is how proud those people are."

The campaign will include a social media and digital ad campaign, a new web site to market the positive aspects of Peoria externally, and ambassadors who will record testimonials about living in the region and connect with candidates.

"You're gonna see a lot of really strong powerful branding for Choose Greater Peoria, and then that will transition into a testimonial campaign later in the summer and into the fall," Dykema said.

The Peoria City Council largely had a positive reception to the pitch.

"This is just an excellent example of collaboration over competition," said Fourth District Councilman Andre Allen. "As we move forward to achieve this goal of talent, acquisition and attraction for our region, when you look around the cities in America that are growing, they're doing this well."

At-large Councilman Zach Oyler also praised the plan.

"This is completely what we've been waiting for. It's what we need. It's what got me partially into public service is wanting to drive this community somewhere, to see action happen to see us grow our business community, so that we can turn ourselves back into an economic engine," he said. "So thank you and your team for the millions of dollars that this is going to bring to our community in the long time commitment that the CEOs will give us in the future."

At-large Councilman Kiran Velpula said while he likes the idea of attracting and keeping new talent in the Peoria area, he also wants to focus on who's already here by growing new talent, too.

"The suggestion that I wanted to make is to make sure that we don't miss out on people that wanted to stay in Peoria," he said.

A kickoff event is set for April 20, and an official launch is set for May 1.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.