When BNA Inc. began looking for updated office space about two years ago, executives with the District-based publisher said their first choice would have been to cut a new deal with the city and stay put.
The company was founded in the District 75 years ago as the Bureau of National Affairs and expanded alongside the federal bureaucracy that its 1,300 employees write about in specialty newsletters, and "all things being equal, we would have wanted to stay here," said Paul N. Wojcik, BNA's president and chief executive.
But Wojcik said that in the battle for jobs around the region, he discovered that "all things weren't equal."
Although the District had provided BNA with a standard tax credit for hiring D.C. residents, the state of Virginia put up $1 million in cash. Arlington developer Charles E. Smith Commercial Realty agreed to exchange a newly renovated office building on South Bell Street in Crystal City for the three smaller buildings BNA owns in the District's West End neighborhood -- a transaction structured so the company could avoid capital gains taxes on a sale of its property.
The D.C. government could not make a counteroffer without D.C. Council approval, and BNA executives said they didn't want to wait on officials at the Wilson Building. The District gave BNA a 10-year property tax deferral in 1996, but it would have taken special legislation to extend it or provide other incentives.
"We had our own time constraints to deal with, and that was not appealing to us," Wojcik said. The company will pay its full property tax bill of around $6.7 million in two more years, about the time the company moves to Crystal City.
The relocation of BNA's 1,300 writers, editors and executives offers a glimpse into how aggressively Arlington County developers and officials are courting businesses. The county is slated to lose as many as 23,000 defense-related jobs in coming years under a proposed restructuring that would move military offices and related agencies out of millions of square feet of leased office space -- much in Crystal City.
"Our biggest problem is Crystal City clearing out. It's really undercutting the District," said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), "They got a terrific deal."
But it also speaks to the evolution of BNA, an employee-owned company that has managed to remain independent despite intense consolidation in legal and business publishing and dramatic shifts in publishing technology.
BNA is the largest independently owned U.S. company in an industry dominated by such multinational conglomerates as Canada-based Thomson Corp., Amsterdam-based Wolters Kluwer and Reed Elsevier, which has headquarters in Britain and the Netherlands. The three have snatched up such U.S. firms as Gale Research and CCH Inc.
BNA was able to withstand pressure to sell because the company is owned exclusively by current and former employees. Despite bimonthly inquiries from brokers, they have steadfastly refused.
"People invest for the long haul. They believe in the overall mission and fundamentals of the business because they are here every day. There are no secrets," said Gregory C. McCaffery, BNA's publisher and chief operating officer.
McCaffery is a case in point. Nineteen years ago, he came to work at BNA as a reporter. His first assignment was to cover a single office inside the Environmental Protection Agency that issued regulations on toxics, a beat where he didn't have to worry about being scooped.
"There was no one else in there," he recalled.
Drilling deep into the minutiae of regulations and legal opinions has been BNA's bread and butter since the Depression, when the expansion of the federal government gave a reporter named David Lawrence the idea to keep lawyers, chief executives and academics up to date on regulatory changes. He later founded two magazines that became U.S. News and World Report.
Lawrence, who cut his teeth covering Woodrow Wilson's presidential campaign, set a high-minded tone for BNA early on, aspiring to a standard of objectivity that today's blogosphere would find quaint. "It's less of the 'gotcha' kind of journalism and more of the 'what does this mean?' " McCaffery said.
But the dry encyclopedia-like style of such publications as the Daily Report for Executives remains a selling point. "Their brand rests on reliability of content," said Chuck Richard, vice president and lead analyst for Outsell Inc., an information industry research firm.
What BNA reports may lack in style, they make up for in utility, which the company has enhanced by offering different ways to search its content. "People are more interested in paying for answers, not more sources of information," McCaffery said. "They want to get in and get out."
The built-in demand for BNA's products makes for a durable business model, even in a time of rapidly changing consumer habits. By selling niche products, BNA is immune from the decline in subscribers experienced by mainstream print media. McCaffery said that renewals hover about 95 percent among the law firms, libraries, corporations and government officers who typically pay thousands of dollars annually for such publications as Anti-Trust & Trade Regulation Daily, or HazMat Transportation News.
Few of BNA's publications accept advertising, which helps further insulate the company from sudden downturns in revenue.
Although many BNA subscribers still insist on receiving paper copies, more than half of the company's annual revenue of about $300 million comes from electronic subscriptions. Indeed, in the early 1990s, the need to build infrastructure for electronic distribution sparked much of the consolidation among BNA's competitors, Richard said.
In those days, BNA managers said, they feared the company's relatively smaller size and limited resources would prevent it from competing with companies that owned their own distribution pipelines, such as LexisNexis. But as more consumers gained access to the Internet, building proprietary networks was no longer necessary.
BNA managers found that their customers cared less about fancy search options and more about the quality of the information itself. The company has since added on-line database search tools for its subscribers and provided quicker online updates, and is readying a service to send news alerts to BlackBerries and other e-mail devices.
"The analysis is the added value" and a skill that can't be replicated by Jeeves or Google, said Robert Oakley, director of the law library at Georgetown University.
"We have editors who've been here for 20 years," McCaffery said. "They develop a level of expertise you can't buy with money."
Having survived industry consolidation and successfully taken advantage of the Internet, the company decided that its offices needed tending. Its employees are spread among four buildings on the 1200 block of 23rd St. NW, forcing workers to scurry from place to place for meetings and traipse down a well-worn alley between the company's two main locations.
To stay in its current spot, "we were going to have to replace everything from the roofs to the elevator shafts," McCaffrery said.
In Crystal City, by contrast, BNA employees will be under one roof, with a Metro stop adjacent to the front door, in an area that is trying to rejuvenate itself with upscale restaurants and shops.
And the company is still in the shadow of the Capitol.
"When we stood on top of the building in Crystal City and saw the Capitol dome, which is on the BNA logo, it seemed right," said Gregory O'Brien, a president of Staubach Co., BNA's relocation adviser.