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Benioff on Brexit - Cameron was ambiguous, tentative and it was all too little, too late

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 28, 2016
Salesforce played a carefully neutral party line prior to last week's Brexit vote in the UK, but CEO Marc Benioff's opened up a lot more today on his perception of the Remain campaign.

Marc Benioff at World Trade Forum

Somewhat ambiguous and tentative.

An interesting assessment from Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff of UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s response to the prospect of Brexit six months prior to last week’s critical referendum that saw the UK decide to pull out of the European Union.

In the months and weeks leading up to last week’s shock Brexit vote in the UK referendum, Salesforce took a very careful impartial party-line, insisting that it was a matter for the British electorate to decide.

That was an entirely appropriate response from a US-headquartered tech firm. The bump in Leave votes that resulted from President Barack Obama’s intervention to support Cameron suggests that this was indeed the right stance to take -  UK matter, UK decision.

But Salesforce has a major stake in what happens now post-Brexit. The firm has identified expansion into Europe, already its fastest growing market, as a priority for the coming years. It’s expanded its footprint in the Salesforce Tower in the City of London and opened a UK data center, as well as opening another in France and one in Germany.

When the results of the Brexit poll came in on Friday morning, Salesforce again struck a measured tone, stating:

Salesforce remains committed to the success of our customers in the region and we plan to continue building on our presence in the UK and across Europe.

It was, once again, a pragmatic response to an uncertain and rapidly developing situation. But today, at the World Economic Forum in Tianjin in the People's Republic of China, Benioff made his views on the Brexit result a lot clearer

What he said makes for interesting reading against a backdrop of what has been dubbed Project Fear in [right wing] parts of the UK media, whereby Cameron and his team spent weeks issuing blood-curdling threats about the consequences of Brexit.

Benioff’s perception is rather different. In an interview with CNBC, he said:

At the last World Economic Forum in Davos in January, Cameron was there, but [Brexit] was not a major issue or major talking item. In fact he was quite ambiguous and tentative. I think that played out in the election [sic].

There was not a strong enough call to arms for CEOs and other key leaders to come forward and say, 'Hey, hold on, pay attention everybody to what this really means'. I feel that that played out with a vote against staying in the European Union.

I think it’s unfortunate because I think that growth is still recovering from the 2008 bubble, especially in Europe. In the US, we’re just kind of getting through that. So to have that kind of obstacle, I think, is too bad.

Too little, too late

His comments built on earlier remarks made during a panel session discussion on The Impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution  where he commented:

There’s been so much discussion about what happened last week with Brexit. Specifically what I would say, is that in Davos, the discussions were not forceful around Brexit. In fact, they were somewhat ambiguous, I would say even tentative.

Even the leaders of the United Kingdom who were there, including David Cameron, in their specific comments to CEOs, which I personally attended, were kind of, I would say, unremarkable in their content.

Because of that, I believe it was a little bit too little, too late when finally they realised that there was a real situation and it could really turn in the wrong direction. A group of CEOs placed an advertisement in a London newspaper only a few days before the vote. Unfortunately it’s just not enough.

He added:

I believe this is a great moment to capture one of the key elements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is that leaders, whether they are political leaders or entrepreneurs or CEOs or social leaders, leaders of NGOs or international organizations, must be much clearer, must be much stronger and more articulate and more outspoken and out-front in how they look at the future. It is not enough to assume that someone else is going to achieve this.

There is definitely a crisis of trust in the world today. There is certainly a crisis of trust that many people feel. I believe that’s the voice of the UK population. A crisis of trust can only be answered with direct leadership.

Meanwhile in a further tech development,  Infor appears to be re-thinking its own decision to use an Amazon Web Services data center in the UK. According to a blog on the Wall Street Journal, CEO Charles Phillips thinks that this:

probably makes less sense now because I'm not sure the EU will want data in the UK.

Infor already hosts data in an AWS data center in the Republic of Ireland.

Infor employs 1000 staffers in the UK. Phillips is also worried about the work visa implications of Brexit, particularly how it relates to hiring East European software engineers:

I’m concerned about our quality of talent…If they're no longer available, that could become an issue.

My take

Salesforce’s stance prior to the referendum - in common with almost all non-UK tech firms, with the notable exception of SAP - was entirely correct from a corporate standpoint. Coming down on either side would have been a no-win situation. I get that. But  I really wish we’d had such comments from the likes of Benioff and Phillips last week, not this week.

As someone who voted Remain despite concerns about how the EU currently operates, I find Benioff’s perception of Cameron’s pre-referendum stance very interesting. In the UK, large tranches of the electorate responded badly to the so-called Project Fear, with its scare-talk of massive tax increases, further cuts, World War III, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse saddling up for a ride etc. How those work out longer term remains to be seen, but that level of rhetoric doesn’t seem to have been rehearsed six months ago in Davos.

While I think it was misjudged during the referendum’s closing weeks, there was passion there in the Remain campaign, even if born from increasing panic. But yes, sadly the UK tech leaders letter was, as Benioff said of the wider Remain campaign, too little too late.

Serious lessons learned too late, not least by outgoing Prime Minster Cameron.

Image credit - World Economic Forum

Disclosure - At time of writing, Infor, Salesforce and SAP are premier partners of diginomica.

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