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Whatever happens, Sears' legacy will endure

Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

For more than century, Sears has been a business icon and the place where America shopped, evolving from a mail order catalog to a department store chain anchoring malls across the country.

Now facing the possibility of liquidation -- a bankruptcy judge is expected to decide the retailer's fate in the coming weeks after Chairman Edward Lampert raised his bid to keep the company in business -- Sears may soon be relegated to the history books.

Whether or not Sears survives, the company's legacy is set to live on -- especially in the Chicago area -- in buildings, businesses and brands that may long outlast the stores themselves.

--Willis (Sears) Tower

There is no greater monument to the scale of Sears at its height than the 1,451-foot, 110-story tower it erected in Chicago. When Sears Tower opened in 1973, it was the world's tallest building, a title it held until 1996. Sears occupied less than 20 percent of the distinctive tubular steel building at 233 S. Wacker Drive, but its name became synonymous with the iconic symbol of Chicago's brawny skyline. The retailer left its namesake home in 1992, moving its corporate headquarters to a sprawling suburban campus in Hoffman Estates and selling the tower two years later. In 2009, the name of the building was changed to Willis Tower as part of the deal for the London-based insurance firm to lease office space there. But for many Chicagoans, the name change didn't take, and the city's tallest building will always be known as Sears Tower.

--Allstate Insurance

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Allstate was founded during the depths of the Great Depression in 1931 as a wholly owned subsidiary of Sears, and it grew into an insurance giant. Its inaugural mission was to provide mail-order car insurance, with its name borrowed from a Sears product, the Allstate automobile tire. In 1993, Sears sold more than $2 billion worth of shares in Northbrook-based Allstate -- then the largest initial public offering of a U.S. company -- as part of its exit from the financial services business. Two years later, Sears completed the spinoff, selling its remaining stake in Allstate to Sears shareholders.

--Discover Financial Services

Competing with Visa, Mastercard and American Express for space in consumers' wallets, the Discover card launched nationally with a Super Bowl ad in January 1986.

The Discover card was initially part of Sears' subsidiary Dean Witter Financial Services, a brokerage house the retailer bought in 1981. Sears spun off the subsidiary in 1993, and it merged with Morgan Stanley four years later. Riverwoods-based Discover Financial Services spun off as an independent publicly traded company in 2007.

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