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Keeping the Lights On

An interview with Sam Insull biographer and Bloomberg columnist John Wasik

By JANE AMMESON
Chicago business writer John Wasik, a columnist for Bloomberg News, has been covering Chicago-area commerce for decades. Born in Chicago Heights, Wasik, who lives in Lake County, is the author of 10 books, including The Merchant of Power: Sam Insull, Thomas Edison and the Creation of the Modern Metropolis (St. Martin’s Press, 2006) and co-author of the recently released iMoney: Building Wealth with Exchange-Traded Funds (Prentice Hall, 2008). Wasik, whose column has been translated into Spanish, Japanese, Italian, German and Portuguese and whose award-winning writing has appeared in newspapers on every continent but Antarctica, talked to Chicago Life about Chicago-style business.

What makes Chicago unique?
   Chicago is a city where modern business came together. The second industrial revolution was seeded here with the structural steel industry and its abundancy of resources. At one time they were mining coal around here as far south as Joliet. Also, the first skyscraper was invented and developed in Chicago. And what makes it even more remarkable was that the entire city burned down and they rebuilt it. Entire industries came out of nowhere in Chicago.

What were some of those businesses that came out of nowhere?
   McCormick Reaper Works enabled farmers to break the prairies, so from here to the high plains became the biggest breadbasket in the world. Pullman Industries revolutionized the building of train cars. Chicago was an incredible nexus of transportation and had access to the ocean from both the Great Lakes and the rivers, so goods could come and go from around the world. But the true business of Chicago is that it was wide-open capitalism. That started after the Great Fire, when everyone knew they could come here and start over. Samuel Insull made his contribution by building the modern electrical grid.

Insull is a name that many people don’t recognize anymore, but in your book about him, you describe how he changed Chicago and the world as we know it.
   Sam Insull had a profound influence on the evolution of the modern metropolis. He perfected the whole industry of power. He promoted the use of electricity by giving away electric irons. But no one had electricity, so housewives would say to their husbands, ‘dear, we need electricity,’ because they didn’t want to keep burning themselves using irons that had to be heated up on the stove. The first home use of electricity was a light bulb and an iron.

Is it true that he was the model for Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane?
   Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, who at one time worked for the Chicago Tribune, was asked by Orson Welles to write a film about a newspaper mogul. His knowledge of Insull and an incident that happened to him when he started to write a scathing review of Insull’s wife, who though in her 50s was playing the part of an 18-year-old, was the inspiration for that character.

Where does Chicago stand in business today?
   The candy industry is still large, even now with Tootsie Roll and Ferrara Pan Candy on the city’s West Side. There’s a lot of research being done here that doesn’t necessarily get a lot of attention. We have two major labs—Fermi and Argonne. The University of Chicago has more Nobel Prize winners than any other university in the nation. There’s a lot of innovation in finance and economics. We have a great commodities market. A lot of derivatives are traded here. Chicago is still a leader in that.
   Chicago is the type of business community that is extremely diverse. From hedge funds to candy makers to tool and die makers, Chicago is really good at making stuff and doing high-end research. The nuclear industry started here.  Nuclear power was born under the bleachers at Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. There are more nuclear power plants in Illinois than in any other state. Given a choice between the East and West Coasts, Chicago is a perfect location.

In this economy, how can the city keep business thriving?
   Chicago needs to do more to make this a business-friendly environment in terms of taxes.

Published: October 11, 2008
Issue: November 2008 Investing In Chicago