Willis Group Holdings a London-based insurance broker, announced Thursday that it will consolidate its area offices to Sears Tower and as part of the deal, gets to put its own name on the 36-year-old skyscraper.
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"It was part of our negotiations," said Willis spokesman Will Thoretz. "We are actually not having to pay anything for renaming the building."
The rental information is accurate but the terms of the deal are incomplete, said a Sears Tower spokesman, who declined to provide additional information.
"The details that have been disclosed are not a complete picture of the agreement," the spokesman said. "We view the economic terms to be proprietary information and do not reveal those for any of our transactions."
The move is a coup for Willis, which counts Aon Corp. as one of its main competitors. Come this summer, Willis' name will be on a tower taller than Aon Center.
"It's a tremendous boost for the Willis brand in North America," Thoretz said. "We're especially well known in the U.K., but we're relatively unknown in North America. We really feel this will make us a household name in the U.S."
A spokesman for Aon said, "Chicago is firmly established as a global financial center so we welcome their support for the city."
But what of any potential backlash, or the inability of Chicagoans to call the building anything but Sears Tower? "Old habits die hard but we feel that ultimately people will come to embrace the Willis name," Thoretz said.
That remains to be seen. For building tenants, the name change will cause them to re-evaluate how they refer to their workplaces and, more importantly, how they direct visitors to their offices.
"I'll suppose I'll tell them the structure formerly known as Sear Tower," said Ronald Safer, managing partner at Tower tenant Schiff Hardin LLP, in a nod to 'the artist formerly known as Prince.' "It is a sign of the times. These former institutions, the names will change as the bidding dictates."
The addition of Willis partially offsets the loss of Ernst & Young, which announced late last year that it would leave its 387,000 square feet in Sears Tower this summer and relocate to John Buck Co.'s new building at 155 N. Wacker.
Sears, Roebuck & Co., now based in Hoffman Estates, finished construction on the office building in 1973 but has not had offices in it since 1992. At the time it was the tallest building in the world and built for what was then the world's largest retailer. It was eclipsed in 1998 and is now the tallest in the Western Hemisphere.
A spokeswoman for Sears said the retailer was not approached about striking a deal to keep its name on the building. "We're saddened but we don't own the rights to the building."