Do mention the B-word - an exit from Brexit silence from business leaders

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan January 22, 2019
CEOs of IBM and SAP are among those who've started to comment on life after Brexit.

As the clock ticks down to the UK’s 29 March scheduled Brexit date from the European Union, there remain too many questions about what happens the day after that for anyone to be comfortable about. But despite this, the message from some leading tech CEOs, including the heads of IBM and SAP, is ‘keep calm and carry on’.

That was certainly the basic theme coming out of Davos this morning as the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting continued. In itself, getting any form of comment on Brexit is a step forward. To date, while UK business leaders have been active in their support/criticism for Brexit, their international counterparts have by and large maintained a diplomatic silence.

There have been some exceptions. SAP, with European roots, has made some contributions to the debate, while Brexit has featured in most of my conversations with Salesforce co-CEO Keith Block in recent years. I also recall Marc Benioff candidly stating that former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who set the whole Brexit ball rolling, had come across as quite ambiguous and tentative about the possible outcome of the vote at the 2016 Davos gathering. And Infors GM EMEA Cormac Watters has also been ready to engage on the subject of the EU departure.

But on the other hand I know of two major global tech players whose PR and legal teams are on their own deadline countdown to come up with the most anodyne of Brexit statements even at this late stage, while a staffer at another firm tells me that even dropping the B-Word into a conversation with a journalist is a sackable offence!

So when a panel of non-UK CEOs was asked about Brexit in a session at Davos today, my expectations weren’t high for what might follow. I was pleasantly surprised by what did emerge, even if there was still a ‘talk around it’ undercurrent.

Ginni Rometty, CEO IBM, made the point that the age of her firm means that it has ‘been there, done that’ through a lot of societal and political turbulence. While not alluding to the controversy around IBM’s alleged role in the Holocaust, she argued:

There have been many times when different political governments have come in and the workforce has said, ‘Why do you work with this one or that one?’. I say, 'When you look back over the long arc of time, we’ve worked with all of them'. Unrest, apartheid, there have been many things before this. How do you navigate it? You plan. You do risk management. Sometimes there’s more of this than other times. I don’t feel that that’s a reason to not move forward with our businesses because we will move through these things. The ability to have contingency planning is much better today than frankly it ever was before, as many of us are doing with Brexit right now.

Contingency and resilience were themes picked up by other panelists. For SAP, CEO Bill McDermott observed:

It’s making sure that the product or service that you offer is resilient in some of the more challenging and not just the optimal times. That’s part of what we do. We build solutions that help countries and companies through the choppy waters and be successful, even in uncertain times. Anybody can be successful when the tide is rising.

He added:

Are you a global citizen of change and innovation and positivity? More and more companies and leaders will start to get measured on those dimensions, because that’s what will help you solve the Brexit problem [and] where you have conflicts and populism rising in different countries.

Away from tech, David Taylor, CEO of Proctor & Gamble, suggested that what matters at the moment is that businesses provide reassurance to consumers that there will be life after Brexit:

In addition to contingency plans, which we all need to have, we need to remind our consumers and our stakeholders that we’ll be there no matter what the outcome. I have a very clear view on what I’d want to see, but the UK people have to decide what’s right for their country…We had a business in the UK before Brexit, we’re going to have a very fine business after Brexit. The same is true for the folks in Europe.

We’re going to serve consumers with brands of high quality no matter what happens. To make sure that we can do that, we have to make sure that the supply chains aren’t interrupted. We are developing contingency plans because we don’t know [how it will turn out]. We would advocate for an agreement that makes sense for both parties, but also we have to be prepared for whatever happens.

But it was left to Hiroaki Nakanishi, Chairman of Hitachi, to deliver the simplest and most direct message to negotiators in London and Brussels:

Please avoid a no deal Brexit.

My take

On a day which has seen the unedifying spectacle of arch-Brexiter James Dyson doing the rounds of media outlets pitching that his decision to move his corporate HQ to Singapore is nothing to do with Brexit, these were some welcome contributions to hear, even if none of them was particularly detailed. That’s understandable - no-one in London or Brussels has a definitive clue what’s going on, so you can hardly expect the CEO of IBM to step in with the solution.

As the 29 March deadline approaches, it will be interersting to see how many more firms will be ready to mention the B-Word. Silence isn’t going to be an option for very much longer, deal or no deal. There are a lot of questions that are going to be asked, not least around matters of cross-border data flows, data residency and supply-chain integrity.

Image credit - Keep Calm Generator

Disclosure - At time of writing, Infor, Salesforce and SAP are premier partners. The author has cancelled plans to buy a Dyson vacuum cleaner.

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