Express Scripts, Centene Highlights of Difficult 2009

Published in: St. Louis Business Journal
Author: Gil Stuenkel

The St. Louis County economy is not quite firing on all cylinders yet, but those who closely watch the employment picture see encouraging signs.

After beginning 2009 with a jobless rate of 8 percent, St. Louis County saw its unemployment rate shoot to 9.7 percent by June, according to data from the Missouri Department of Economic Development. The rate has since begun to decline; it was 9.3 percent in October.

The county's job market took some hits, among them the closing of Chrysler's operations in Fenton, affecting 1,200 workers there, and the loss of 600 jobs at Pfizer's facilities in Chesterfield. Still, the county's diverse economic base helped it show "some resilience," according to Denny Coleman, president and CEO of the St. Louis County Economic Council.

The bright spots most often cited are financial services and health care. Notably, Edward Jones, Scottrade, Express Scripts and Centene Corp. all expanded this year despite the lingering recession.

Thanks to its $4.7 billion acquisition of WellPoint's pharmacy benefits management unit, Express Scripts is poised to become the region's largest publicly owned entity. Benjamin Ola Akande, dean of the school of business and professor of economics at Webster University, believes the company isn't done growing.

"They have accounted for more than $400 billion in economic impact in the last three years," he said. "I see them making (more) strategic acquisitions."

Express Scripts currently is building a high-volume prescription fulfillment center here that will create 270 jobs. Construction of the $60 million, 12-acre expansion at NorthPark is under way and scheduled for completion next April. The center will feature state-of-the-art pharmacy automation for the dispensing, packaging and shipment of 110,000 prescriptions a day.

Edward Jones plans to add 250 jobs as part of its latest expansion. That number is in addition to the 500 jobs the firm added in exchange for state tax credits to help finance its $260 million campus in Maryland Heights, where it recently added a 372,000-square-foot building. The new jobs will be spread between the company's North campus in Maryland Heights and its South campus in Des Peres.

Scottrade this year purchased two buildings and two parcels of land in Maryville Centre, and it announced earlier that it would add 250 information technology jobs.

Akande sees Scottrade as a growing global force in online securities trading. "This is a home-grown company with global impact," he said. "It puts St. Louis on the map as one of the financial capitals of the new generation."

Centene's $186 million headquarters in Clayton will be that city's first new office building since 2001, and it will comprise more than 460,000 square feet of office space and more than 28,000 square feet of retail space. Centene, which provides managed care programs and related services to individuals under Medicaid, will fill about 200,000 square feet of the space.

Future opportunities

As 2009 draws to a close, the county is "well-positioned for a rebound," said Rod Nunn, vice chancellor for work force development for St. Louis Community College. "Too often we fixate on the jobless rate from month to month, and this contributes to a negative investor and consumer psyche."

Akande said the area should emphasize attracting manufacturing companies that will recognize the availability of workers. "And we have idle plants, big spaces," he said. "St. Louis County really has the opportunity to reinvent itself."

Manufacturing now accounts for 12 percent of the county's economy, Akande said. Higher education and health care make up 21.6 percent, and financial services represents another 9 percent.

Johnson sees plant science and nutrition as an emerging area where St. Louis is well-positioned to take a world leadership role. "We are on the front edge of revolutionary developments in plant science and technology related to agriculture," he said.

County Executive Charlie Dooley said the completed rebuild of Interstate 64/Highway 40 and new construction on Highway 141 will have a big impact next year. The completion of the work on Highway 141 will open thousands of acres in west St. Louis County for new development.

Steve Johnson, senior vice president of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association, said there has been a "significant increase in (out-of-town) companies looking for new facilities." However, he cautioned it would be six months to two years before any of those inquiries lead to new area jobs.

Gil Stuenkel is a St. Louis freelance writer.