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Centene's Decision To Build In Ferguson: A Conversation With The CEO

Courtesy Centene

Earlier this month Centene Corp., a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Clayton, announced it would build a new medical claims facility in Ferguson. The company, which operates government-sponsored health care plans in 20 states, has said it will hire 150 to 200 employees at the facility.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman spoke with CEO and Chairman Michael Neidorff about the plans for an NPR piece on the economic impact of Ferguson. Excerpts from that interview are below. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to build a facility in Ferguson?

Neidorff: We have anticipated a service center claims spot in north St. Louis for some time. We saw an opportunity to help the community. When the incidents unfolded in Ferguson and I learned that small shopkeepers were considering "should we reopen or not?" and then they asked individuals what do you want, they said "jobs," I said "why not?" Give the community some hope; show we have confidence in the greater St. Louis area. We’ll open a service center there, along with a day-care center. We’re also talking about opening an education center, which could become a community asset to further people’s education who need GEDs. We’ll work cooperatively with the other educational facilities in the area.

The intent really is to employ people from Ferguson?

Neidorff: We would hope when you do geo-mapping that a lot of people would be from Ferguson because of the ease of getting to the facility. But at the same time other people from the region may be looking for employment, too, and we will be willing to employ them, too. So I expect a large number to be from Ferguson and the immediate surrounding area, but we cannot build a facility that is one-town centric. We have to be sensitive to the greater area that we live and work.

Give me an idea of the skill level that’s required.

Neidorff: We would typically look for a high school graduate or equivalency. They need some ability to type because there is computer work. Essentially we’ll teach them how to work on our systems on computers for the purpose of adjudicating claims. And it’s inside, it’s clean. I don’t want to call it technical and scare people off, but it does lead to a more technical background that we think will help individuals have skills that they can use for a lifetime.

They’ll get the full range of benefits that any Centene employee gets: life insurance, disability, short and long term, education assistance after a year, just the full range, plus a day-care center that’s deeply discounted. It’s not really a day-care center; it’s a child development center. We use Bright Horizons for that.

I’m wondering what you’ve told your friends in the business community. Are you encouraging other CEOs, other businesses to do something along these lines?

Neidorff: I’ve not gotten into those discussions. I believe once we’re there, it creates a little bit of an anchor, but there are other fine companies up there that will be doing things, I’m certain. So I don’t feel an obligation or a right to tell others they should do this or that. But once we do this and it’s successful, I’m really counting on, not initially but over the next few years, to be able to say that we’ve attracted a very capable, successful workforce. It just gives more individuals a reason to do it.

Has a site been chosen in Ferguson?

Neidorff: We have a site, but until we go through the environmental testing I don’t want to name it. But watch within the next 30 to 45 days. You’ll see a sign go up that says “future site” and you’ll see some very quick construction. We have this on the fast track, and we have a site located, we believe, for temporary training and where the initial hiring office will be. I hope to get that up and running in the next 30 to 60 days. We talked about getting this done and having this under way by the end of the year, and we have a team that’s committed to doing that.

The new building will be up sometime next year?

Neidorff: Our goal is within 12 months, but these individuals will be working before that. We’ll probably have some number, maybe 50, hired before that, so it’s not a matter of getting the building built. That’s why we have the temporary location.

How do you think St. Louis will get past this as a region, specifically with economic development and keeping business here robust and attracting business?

Neidoff: Ferguson is a community with a long heritage. There are incredibly good people in Ferguson, some of whom work in this company. We need to focus on creating the opportunity for people in Ferguson and others. When they take advantage of it and make the most of it, that’s the best way to have others follow and go down the same path and rebuild the credibility. It’s not words, it’s actions that create the credibility that I’m talking about.

I’m hoping this is a start. It's really important that we focus on how this is going to give youth jobs and a chance to learn, develop and be successful. If we can focus on the good and say the "past is the past, let’s look ahead." To move ahead fairly and aggressively, that’s the best way, in my opinion, to regain the trust of the world as it comes to the greater St. Louis area.

Follow Maria on Twitter: @radioaltman

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.