Sara Lee relocating headquarters to Chicago

December 8, 2011 3:40:12 PM PST
Sara Lee Corp. is moving its headquarters to downtown Chicago from Downers Grove, Ill., in 2013 after it completes its split into two units.

The food maker announced earlier this year that it will split into two separate companies in the first half of 2012 with one focused on international beverages and a second focused on meats. Names for the two companies will be unveiled at a later date.

The return of Sara Lee to Chicago is a big boost for Mayor Rahm Emanuel's initiative to bring jobs to the city.

"I'm proud to be the first to say welcome home for the holidays and that you're here to stay," said Emanuel.

It may have been Mayor Emanuel's biggest jobs victory so far. That's because only six years ago Sara Lee Company left Chicago and based itself in west suburban Downers' Grove. Earlier this year, the firm spun off its meat division -- Ball Park, Hillshire Farm and Jimmy Dean -- and now the boss says the suburb is too quiet for headquarters.

"As a smaller, more entrepreneurial company, we need to create a lot of buzz and it's very difficult to get that buzz and energy in an area where it's very quiet," said Jan Binnink, Sara Lee.

Sara Lee's meat division will move between 500 and 650 of its most highly paid employees into a 64-year-old building at Jefferson and Van Buren in the West Loop. It will undergo a multi-million dollar facelift before becoming home to the company's younger, hipper corporate culture.

"We want to catch the energetic part of what Chicago represents," said Binnink.

The firm also will move its coffee and tea division headquarters from DuPage County reportedly to Europe.

In Downers Grove, cab driver Eric Tempke who carried passengers from Sara Lee to and from the airports agreed that his village does lack a certain buzz.

"We don't have the hustle and bustle of the big city...but anything you need is right here in Downers," said Tempke. "Maybe not for Sara Lee."

The city will give Sara Lee between $5 and $6.5 million in tax incentives to return to Chicago.

After calling the company's move a win for Chicago, the mayor downplayed the loss for DuPage County.

"That doesn't mean that if Sara Lee's corporate headquarters is in Chicago it's a net loss for the suburbs because as we're a dynamic city, they succeed and as they're dynamic and growing, we will also succeed," said Emanuel.

While the headquarters jobs won't arrive in the city until 2013. It will take hundreds of construction workers to redesign and rebuild 400 South Jefferson during 2012. Back in the 1960s and early '70s, the building housed the selective service's induction center for military draftees. It processed thousands of young men on their way to Vietnam.

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