Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz may have spoken for many corporate CEOs when he said in a memo to employees that he was “stunned” about the election outcome last week.
But a week later, as the news of Trump’s win gave way to planning for his transition, the reality appears to be taking hold, and corporations are navigating how to respond in the aftermath of a historic election that proved explosively divisive. On the campaign trail, Trump bashed several U.S. companies. Rhetoric about women and minorities from Trump’s campaign, his supporters or his past create a minefield for corporations that have touted their diversity and inclusion policies. Some CEOs or corporate officials who have spoken out have seen calls for boycotts of their brands on social media.
“They’re clearly not as vocal, and in many cases are laying low and waiting to see what really is generated through the Republican-controlled Congress,” says Thomas Cooke, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.
Yet that Republican-controlled Congress is also expected to usher in pro-business changes such as tax reform, infrastructure plans and regulatory changes that have some in the business community excited, said John Engler, a former governor of Michigan and the president of the Business Roundtable, which represents CEOs of the largest public corporations.
“The reaction from the election has simply been ‘let’s get ready to take advantage of this opportunity that’s presented itself,’ ” he said in an interview. CEOs, he says, “are interested in growth. They awakened a week ago and said ‘wow, what was not possible is possible.’ “
In its aftermath, the chief response from CEOs speaking out about the election included congratulations, calls for unity and commitments to diversity. J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon wrote to his employees that “we have just been through one of the most contentious elections in memory, which can make it even harder to put our differences aside.” Apple’s Tim Cook quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and reminded employees that “our company is open to all … regardless of what they look like, where they come from, how they worship or who they love.”
Yet some CEOs are also starting to publicly offer more policy-oriented remarks or even advice for Trump as the focus shifts from the results of the campaign to how he will govern. On Tuesday, General Electric’s Jeff Immelt, who had written an initial blog post to employees last week, suggested in a CNBC interview that Trump might actually find himself benefitting from trade deals. “I think what the president will learn,” the GE CEO said, is that trade “is that as he travels the world, trade deals give him power. … If the president of the United States travels around the world and has nothing to offer from a standpoint of economic connection, you lose half of your negotiating power. This guy is a negotiator, he’s a dealmaker. So I think let’s just wait and see what he does.”
In a letter to Trump released Tuesday, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty had a few proposals of her own. “I am writing to offer ideas that I believe will help achieve the aspiration you articulated and that can advance a national agenda in a time of profound change,” Rometty wrote. She suggested working together to scale up vocational “new collar” IT jobs, voiced support for a more competitive tax system, and recommended infrastructure projects that incorporate technology and artificial intelligence.
Meanwhile, Mark Fields, the CEO of Ford, spoke for the first time since the election outcome about the 35 percent tariff Trump has discussed imposing on cars made in Mexico. Fields delivered the keynote speech at the Los Angeles Auto Show on Tuesday and said “a tariff like that would be imposed on the entire auto sector, and that could have a huge impact on the U.S. economy,” according to the Detroit Free-Press. During the campaign, Trump frequently called out Ford for moving its small car production from the United States to Mexico.
Still, in a charged atmosphere with a divided electorate and an explosive social media environment, some brands are already learning how volatile the response can be to business leaders’ remarks. Also at the New York Times conference, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi said she fielded questions from her employees who were “all crying” after the election. She said: “The question that they’re asking, especially those who are not white: ‘Are we safe?’ Women are asking: ‘Are we safe?’ LGBT people are asking: ‘Are we safe?’ I never thought I’d have had to answer those questions.”
Notably, she also spoke of unifying the country and acknowledging the democratic process. “We will all come together and unify the country. So the process of democracy happened. We just have to let life go on.” Yet Trump supporters on social media platforms seized on parts of her remarks, calling for a boycott of PepsiCo’s products. (A PepsiCo spokesman said in an emailed statement that “Mrs. Nooyi misspoke. She was referring to the reaction of a group of employees she spoke to who were apprehensive about the outcome of the election. She never intended to imply that all employees feel the same way. We are incredibly proud of the diverse views and backgrounds across our workforce, and we are united in our desire for a brighter future.”)
Meanwhile, a New Balance official, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, told the Wall Street Journal “with President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction.” Although it was intended only as a statement on the company’s position on the trade deal, and “nothing beyond that issue,” a company spokeswoman said in an email, it became kindling for protests from Trump opponents, some of whom posted videos to social media of their sneakers being set on fire in response. A neo-Nazi blogger even called the shoes the “official shoes of white people.”
The company, which still makes its athletic shoes in the United States, said in an emailed statement that it “has a unique perspective on trade in that we want to make more shoes in the United States, not less. New Balance publicly supported the trade positions of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump prior to election day that focused on American manufacturing job creation and we continue to support them today.” It also issued a statement saying the 110-year-old sneaker company “does not tolerate bigotry or hate in any form.”