Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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Economic hotspot: Midwest business stories

January 18, 2017

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The 2016 campaign shone a light on the U.S. Midwest, where a crop of business stories await investigation. (Farm image by "tafferdog" via pixabay)
The 2016 campaign shone a light on the U.S. Midwest, where a crop of business stories await investigation. (Farm image by "tafferdog" via pixabay)

The 2016 election shone a spotlight on the Midwest, placing new emphasis on the region’s economy and changing political landscape. This blog outlines some of the core business stories and themes from the nation’s heartland.

Know the region

Here’s a quick geography refresher. The Midwest includes the following states:

  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • South Dakota
  • Wisconsin

Chicago is in the region’s biggest hub and America’s third-largest city; the 2010 census reports a population of 2,695,598. Other major metropolises include Indianapolis (852,866), Columbus (787,033) and Detroit (686,888).

Know the big Midwestern companies

Next, consider the business activity in the region. It might surprise you to learn that 127 Midwestern companies made the most recent Fortune 500 list. Among them:

  • Berkshire Hathaway resides in Omaha, Nebraska.
  • Monsanto, the agribusiness company, lives in St. Louis, MO
  • Target, the mammoth retailer, is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Harley-Davidson is headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • Oshkosh, the children’s clothing retailer, hails from Oshkosh, Wisconsin

This link provides a full list of Fortune 500, Midwestern companies.

Cover the research 

Financial reporters should also note that considerable research emerges from the Midwest. For example, SC Johnson, America’s largest privately held company, based in Racine, Wisconsin, not only makes household products including RAID and Windex, but also conducts research on malaria prevention in developing countries. In 2010, SC Johnson partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to combat the disease, especially in the Base of the Pyramid communities. The company has also created educational initiatives to combat mosquito borne viruses that kill millions of people a year. (SC Johnson also made headlines in February by becoming the first consumer packaged goods company to declare a full list of fragrance ingredients in their products.) Meanwhile, Monsanto has partnered with climate experts to research the impact agriculture has on the environment. Monsanto seeks to become carbon neutral by 2021.

Understand the economic weaknesses and strengths 

Much of the Midwest has fallen upon economic hard times, but many experts predict a rebound. This Market Watch story reports that consistent, reliable water availability from the Great Lakes region, puts the Midwest and region advantage over the US Southwest and the Great Plains. And while traditional manufacturing won’t likely return to its heyday, experts say, advanced, government supported manufacturing centers provide hope for more manufacturing to come. This report claims Michigan has the best economy in the Midwest and ranked in the top 10 nationally, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis data. Experts cite broad-based growth, Michigan’s tax policy and its regulatory environment as the causes.

Report on the dairy industry

Reporters should also note that much of this nation’s dairy production is in the Midwest, with inherent challenges and successes. For instance, as consumers seek out more alternatives to cows’ milk, including soy and almond milk, dairy farmers become threatened. This report from ABC news outlines how this trend impacts farmers in Wisconsin a leading producer of America’s cheese, butter and milk. This report also outlines Wisconsin’s rapid growth in dairy production including 29 billion pounds of milk produced in 2015, a state record, and a 26.6 percent rise in cheese production from 2005 to 2015.

Reporter’s Takeaway

• Significant numbers of Fortune 500 companies exist in the Midwest,. In 2015, they numbered 127. Some of these are doing significant research, including Monsanto’s efforts to better understand agriculture’s impact on the environment and SC Johnson’s efforts to reduce malaria in developing countries.

• While the Midwest region has struggled economically, many experts project a comeback, especially in areas such as Michigan, the healthiest economy in the area and ranked top 10 nationally, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis data.

• The dairy industry, a vital part of the Midwest economy, is undergoing both challenges and successes.

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