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Caterpillar's Doug Oberhelman: Manufacturing's Mouthpiece

Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman has led the company to record profits and become the U.S. manufacturing industry’s most visible leader. Has that come at the expense of his workers?
Caterpillar's Doug Oberhelman: Manufacturing's Mouthpiece
Photograph by Daniel Shea for Bloomberg Businessweek

Caterpillar’s D 11 bulldozer, which costs about $2 million, is the size of a small studio apartment. On a spring afternoon, Doug Oberhelman, chief executive officer and chairman of the company, the world’s biggest manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, gazes approvingly at one of these gargantuan machines, which is gleaming in its fresh yellow paint. As workers in camouflage hats and dusty jeans stream through Caterpillar’s East Peoria (Ill.) factory, Oberhelman, who is wearing an open-collar shirt with a Caterpillar logo, his gray hair parted neatly to the side, pauses for a moment. “Good-looking machine, isn’t it?” he says, the question sounding more like a statement of fact.

Oberhelman, 60, has a sturdy, serious demeanor that’s made him an ideal spokesman for American manufacturing. Over the past two years the Caterpillar chief has emerged as a powerful advocate for policy changes he believes will boost exports and create jobs: looser trade restrictions, a lower corporate tax rate, and greater infrastructure spending. Oberhelman recently became chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers, the industry’s influential trade organization, and has counseled numerous congressmen and the president.