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Friday, June 28, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The man who moved Boeing to Chicago comes back home

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

The clerk at the downtown Rand McNally travel store had no way to know the strapping gray-haired man in the checkout line held a corporate secret that would eventually astound Seattle.

Scanning the customer's armful of books and maps for Atlanta, Detroit, Cincinnati and other cities, the clerk couldn't resist asking, "What are you doing with all this?"

"I'm looking for a place to locate a world headquarters," replied John Warner, Boeing's chief administrative officer.

Thus began Boeing's hunt for a new hometown. By the time Warner's research ended 11 months later, in May 2001, Boeing was bound for Chicago, and Seattle's civic complacency had been blotted out under the corporate insult.

Now Warner, who postponed early retirement to spearhead Boeing's defection at Chairman Phil Condit's behest, is returning home to his beloved Seattle — armed with tough words of admonition about competitiveness.

Warner retires today as a Boeing senior vice president, capping a 34-year career that began as an engineer on the supersonic-transport program and ended as Condit's confidant and aide-de-camp, and the closest person the giant aerospace company had to a chief of staff.

Warner, a youthful 62-year-old with an open, square face beneath a buzz cut, is perhaps the Boeing executive with deepest philanthropic ties to Seattle. He serves on the boards of a half-dozen community groups, including the Pacific Science Center, the Seattle Alliance for Education and Western Washington University.

Starting last September, Warner shuttled between his home on Queen Anne and Boeing's new corporate headquarters in downtown Chicago. Warner said he is delighted to give up his Chicago apartment and return full time to Seattle, where his wife, two children and four grandchildren live.

But Warner's won't be an idle retirement. He believes the Puget Sound region risks squandering its abundant natural advantages because of indecisive leadership and a cultural propensity for consensus-seeking.

Warner is frustrated by the political gridlock over traffic congestion. He is alarmed that without better schools and more money for colleges, Washington's quality of life will gradually erode. He is exasperated with the tangle of local and state regulations he contends saps vitality from businesses.

"I love it here. I think it's the greatest place to live," Warner said, speaking in his office at Boeing's former world headquarters on East Marginal Way. "But we have had a tendency to take ourselves for granted. We need to learn not to be complacent."

Yet Warner concedes that change will require something of a regional personality makeover.

Leaders in Washington state "don't know when to stop the debate and start moving," Warner complained, leaning forward with coiled energy as if he might unbutton his starched sleeves and roll them up. Their inaction belies the urgency of the region's problems, Warner warned.

As Boeing's point man on the headquarters search, Warner saw up close just how much harder some cities work to recruit and retain businesses. Based largely on Warner's single-handed research (Condit swore him to secrecy), Boeing by February 2001 had narrowed its potential headquarters cities to three: Chicago, Denver and Dallas/Fort Worth.

Six weeks of orchestrated frenzy ensued as the finalists unleashed unbridled self-promotion to woo the world's largest aerospace company.

It ended when Chicago and Illinois literally rolled out the red carpet — not to mention $63 million in potential tax incentives — in exchange for some 400 headquarters jobs and the incalculable cachet of being the home base of a Fortune 100 company.

Having spent two-thirds of his time in Chicago for nine months, Warner has grown enamored of the Windy City. He admires the way Chicago's charismatic mayor, Richard Daley, forges alliances with businesses, surrounding cities and state government to promote his city's economic future.

"Mayor Daley is incredible. Their motto is, 'The city works.' In Illinois, politics is entertainment," Warner said.

The Texans still haven't given up on Boeing. Just last month, the head of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce gave Warner a courtesy call, part of regular contact Texas officials maintain as a signal the state would welcome future Boeing jobs.

Warner notes that Washington's Constitution prohibits giving private businesses tax breaks, an often-used — or, some say, abused — economic-development bait in many parts of the country.

Warner, who has a doctorate in aeronautical engineering, joined Boeing in 1968 to work on research and development of advanced controls and displays for the never-launched supersonic-transport plane. He subsequently worked on Boeing's 747, 767 and 737 jetliner programs as well as the B-2 stealth-bomber program, among others.

In 1993, Warner became president of Boeing Computer Services. Condit had been named president of Boeing the year before and he began using Warner as his helper.

As Boeing's chief administrative officer, Warner served as Condit's conduit to the board of directors, managed strategic issues that cut across Boeing's far-flung business units. He also was the company's top liaison with community, educational and industry groups.

Warner's duties will be split between Bob Watt, vice president of government and community affairs for Renton-based Boeing Commercial Airplanes, and Laurette Koellner, one of three executives whom Condit recently appointed to a newly created Office of the Chairman.

Warner said he is leaving his 16th and final job at Boeing with much anticipation toward his next mission: giving Puget Sounders a wake-up call.

"We cannot take our situation, our assets, our people for granted," Warner said. "We are in a competitive world."

Kyung M. Song can be reached at 206-464-2423 or ksong@seattletimes.com.

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