Joe Cahill On Business

The hottest Chicago business stories that have yet to be written

What does the new year hold in store for Boeing, McDonald's, Exelon, marijuana entrepreneurs and a slew of others? Joe Cahill checks his crystal ball.


There's no telling what the new year will bring, but here are five Chicago business stories likely to hold our attention in 2020.

Graduated income tax referendum. Illinois voters will pass judgment in November on a state constitutional amendment79彩票注册网址 that allows higher income tax rates on wealthier residents. Approval of the graduated income tax would mark the most significant revamping of state taxes in decades, with a multibillion-dollar impact on Illinois' economy. Expect an epic battle as powerful forces on both sides pump cash into pro and con campaigns. Billionaire Gov. J.B. Pritzker's recent $5 million donation to a committee backing the amendment is only a down payment, and business interests opposing the measure can match him dollar for dollar. Rarely, if ever, have Illinoisans had a direct say in a matter of such immense economic significance. Their choice will affect not only Pritzker's ability to carry out his policy agenda, but also the state's fiscal profile and the cost-benefit calculus of anybody deciding whether to live or do business in Illinois.

Boeing 737 Max. 2019 ended without an answer to one of the biggest questions in business: When will Boeing's bestselling jet fly again? Regulators grounded the 737 Max last March after the second of two crashes that killed 346 people. Hopes for a return to service last year faded as post-crash investigations unearthed flaws in 737 Max flight control software while raising questions about regulatory oversight and Boeing's disclosures during the plane's original certification process. Boeing directors fired CEO Dennis Muilenburg in late December after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration rebuked the company for failing to provide timely and complete responses to investigators while pressuring the agency to recertify the plane quickly. Once expected last fall, clearance from the FAA isn't likely to come . More important than the timing of regulatory approval is what happens afterward. The grounding created a huge opportunity for Boeing archrival Airbus to capture market share in the lucrative single-aisle jet market. Orders for the 737 Max after regulators sign off will show how much the episode has hurt Boeing's business. The answers to many of these questions will be in the hands of David Calhoun, who takes over from Muilenburg on Jan. 13.

Exelon. Federal prosecutors investigating Springfield lobbying by Exelon subsidiary Commonwealth Edison likely will show their cards this year. Amid intensifying scrutiny, top executives including former Exelon Utilities CEO Anne Pramaggiore left the company last fall. Pramaggiore ran Commonwealth Edison during much of the time it was buying its way into the good graces of powerful Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. But the possibility that the company or some of its current or former execs might be indicted isn't Exelon's biggest worry. Even worse would be a loss of clout in the state Capitol, a central pillar of Exelon's business model and strategy. Political foes already feel emboldened; a bill introduced last month calls for re-examination of the Legislature's 2016 bailout of financially ailing Exelon nuclear plants. Admittedly a long shot, the bill nevertheless augurs poorly for Exelon's ability to push through legislative priorities such as the new nuke bailout it hopes to pursue in the next session.

Weed. 79彩票注册网址Recreational marijuana sales became legal in Illinois on Jan. 1 amid high expectations on many fronts. Entrepreneurs see a big new market waiting to be tapped. Social activists see an opportunity to make Illinois' economy a bit more equitable by giving minorities a ground-floor shot at a business that appears to have strong growth potential. State and local officials see a new source of tax revenue. Over the course of 2020, we'll begin to discover how well recreational marijuana can fulfill those hopes. Don't draw conclusions from the early surge in sales when marijuana shops start serving recreational customers. More revealing will be the subsequent growth trajectory that emerges after pent-up demand is met. That trend line will reveal the long-term value of legalizing weed.

New bosses. Four of Chicago's biggest companies will have new CEOs in 2020. Calhoun replaces Muilenburg at Boeing. Chris Kempczinski took over at McDonald's in November after predecessor Steve Easterbrook stepped down over a relationship with a subordinate. Robert Ford succeeds Miles White at Abbott Laboratories in March, and Scott Kirby takes the controls of United Airlines from Oscar Munoz in May. While Calhoun walks into a full-blown crisis, the other three take charge of companies that are doing well but face challenges that will test their new leaders. Corporate boards are much quicker to pull the plug on underperforming CEOs these days. That means early stumbles could lead to short tenures for the new honchos.

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