Boeing Co. said Tuesday that it will move the headquarters of its defense unit from St. Louis to the Washington area.
The decision, which will affect about a dozen top executives and some support staff, reflects the aerospace giant’s desire to be closer to the levers of power in the nation’s capital.
Boeing said the move had been under consideration for several months and was unrelated to the results of the Nov. 8 election.
“We continue to expand our leadership presence in the [Washington] area to increase customer engagement in a highly competitive market,” Boeing spokesman Philip Carder told the Post-Dispatch. “Approximately one dozen positions will be part of the initial move and we anticipate about 50 positions will eventually relocate there over time.”
Boeing Defense, Space & Security president and CEO Leanne Caret is slated to begin working from the company’s Arlington, Va., office on Jan. 3. She’ll reside in the Washington area and maintain offices in both Arlington and St. Louis, Carder said. Caret was tapped earlier this year to lead the defense unit. “There will be no change to the day-to-day operations at the St. Louis site,” Carder said.
Boeing Defense, Space & Security is a $30 billion business, employing 50,000 worldwide.
The move puts Boeing’s executives closer to decision-makers in Washington. Its major competitors, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, are both based in Washington suburbs.
“The big problem is all the key military customers are based in Washington and it’s inconvenient to try to deal with those customers from St. Louis,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, a policy research group in Arlington, Va.
Thompson said the location of the headquarters wouldn’t have a negative impact on Boeing’s St. Louis area workforce.
“Moving the top staff to the capital probably bolsters Boeing’s ability to protect jobs in Berkeley,” Thompson said, referencing the municipality where a concentration of St. Louis-area Boeing employees are based. “This is not about St. Louis losing jobs, this is about St. Louis protecting jobs.”
Richard Aboulafia, a vice president and aviation analyst at Fairfax, Va.-based Teal Group, said the decision to locate near the Pentagon made “overwhelming sense.”
“It’s really just to have their top decision-makers close to those making the decisions and paying the bills,” Aboulafia said.
The headquarters announcement comes almost exactly 20 years after Boeing announced it was buying St. Louis-based McDonnell Douglas and would base its defense operations here.
The $13.3 billion merger, first announced on Dec. 15, 1996, was finalized in 1997. McDonnell Douglas traced its start to the 1939 launching of McDonnell Aircraft Corp. at Lambert Field by aviation pioneer James S. McDonnell.
Production of Boeing’s F-15, F/A-18 and EA-18G fighter jets is based in St. Louis, in addition to advanced weapon systems, new product development, and composite components for the new 777X commercial airplane.
Though the headquarters move means the loss of some area jobs, Boeing announced last month that it planned to move 500 jobs to its north St. Louis County campus from California as part of a consolidation of its Defense, Space & Security business.
“Boeing’s commitment to the St. Louis region remains strong,” the company said in a statement.
Boeing employs about 14,500 people in the St. Louis area. McDonnell Douglas had 23,000 employees locally at the time of the merger 20 years ago.
Last week, President-elect Donald Trump complained on Twitter about the costs to build a new Air Force One, made by Boeing, and urged the government to cancel its order.
Asked whether Trump’s comments affected the decision to move top executives closer to the nation’s capital, Boeing indicated they did not.
“Discussions regarding planning for this move have been ongoing for some time,” Carder said. The move is focused on enabling [Boeing Defense, Space & Security] leadership to be closer to customers and key decision-makers, and is unrelated to the new administration.”
Congressional staffers in the Missouri delegation also said it was unlikely that the move was related to Trump’s recent statements about the company, noting that moves such as this would be months in the making. Boeing officials individually briefed members of the delegation before the announcement.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said that, in total, Boeing still had put more jobs in the St. Louis region in recent months than had left.
“In our view, Boeing has clearly demonstrated its commitment to the St. Louis region, with net-gain of 450 new local jobs, and the opening of its Composite Center, in 2016 alone,” McCaskill spokesman John LaBombard said. “Clearly they remain committed to our state.”
Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, had a response similar to McCaskill’s.
"Congresswoman Wagner remains confident in Boeing Defense's commitment to the greater St. Louis region and the role it plays in our national defense,” said Wagner’s communications director, Meghan Burris. “The Congresswoman looks forward to continuing this partnership and protecting the local, good-paying jobs that Boeing Defense provides."
Sheila Sweeney, CEO of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, noted the company’s recent move of additional jobs here and said the region’s workforce continues to make St. Louis an attractive place to build planes and weapons.
“Their competitors being located in the D.C.-area, and as their CEO pointed out, it afforded them the opportunity to have more face time with folks in D.C.,” Sweeney said. “We have no reason to believe it’s anything other than that.”
This isn't the first time top executives of a major St. Louis defense contractor relocated to the Washington area.
In 1991, General Dynamic moved its 300-person headquarters from Clayton to Falls Church, Va. Unlike Boeing, the company didn't have any St. Louis area factories, and was only here because David S. Lewis, a McDonnell Douglas executive, insisted General Dynamics move to St. Louis when he took the CEO job in 1971.
Chuck Raasch, Jacob Barker and David Nicklaus of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.