Donald Trump’s presidency isn’t yet a week old, but he has made it clear that business leaders matter in his White House—and chief executives say it’s about time.
Former Exxon Mobil Corp. chief executive Rex Tillerson is primed to lead the State Department, and Mr. Trump’s transition team has tapped a panel of executives to provide the president with economic insight and advice. On Monday, Mr. Trump began his first full week on the job in a breakfast meeting with corporate chiefs.
For CEOs, the moves have sent a message that their stock is rising in Washington, with some betting that they will have a louder say in running the country.
To be sure, Mr. Trump’s Twitter pronouncements targeting companies and threats to punish firms with tariffs are causing anxiety among corporate chieftans, many of whom didn’t support his candidacy. Yet corporate leaders welcome his willingness to tap CEOs for important jobs and advice is a welcome change.
Going forward, “it’ll be different voices heard,” said Delos “Toby” Cosgrove, the chief executive of the Cleveland Clinic, who has met with the president twice since the election. Dr. Cosgrove, who was offered the top job at the Department of Veterans Affairs, will serve on the President’s Strategic and Policy Forum, a group of business leaders convened to advise Mr. Trump.
Dr. Cosgrove said he felt frustrated by the health-care industry’s lack of involvement in the shaping of the Affordable Care Act during President Barack Obama’s time in office. “I got three minutes in the Roosevelt Room,” he said. “The input into the legislation was very little.”
Mr. Obama sought executives’ advice during his tenure, appointing corporate leaders such as General Electric Co. CEO Jeffrey Immelt and Facebook Inc. operations chief Sheryl Sandberg to his council on jobs and competitiveness, which met four times. Some executives say they felt the financial crisis stigmatized big business during the Obama years.
“I’ve had a sense in the last eight years that big business is not popular,” said David MacLennan, CEO of agricultural giant Cargill Inc. “Perhaps there will be a different attitude that’s more understanding and appreciative.”
Bill George, a former Medtronic Inc. chief who teaches leadership at Harvard Business School, has advised CEOs not to be naive and to focus on running their companies. This president is unlike the business leaders corporate executives are used to.
Mr. George said he generally knew what to expect when Medtronic negotiated with Bill Clinton. “We felt like there was much greater clarity,” he said of working with past presidents. “Now, we don’t know.”
Another danger: if Mr. Trump doesn’t make good on his campaign promises for economic growth, business leaders acknowledge that could hurt them, too.
Ralph Stayer, the chairman of Sheboygan Falls, Wis-based Johnsonville Sausage LLC, believes perceptions of business leaders will improve only if the administration is successful and creates jobs. Still, he is pleased to see corporate executives ascending to the highest ranks of government. “I’ve been waiting for it for a long time,” he said.
If his picks are approved, Mr. Trump’s cabinet will have the greatest number of high-level executives coming directly from the private sector since the Reagan administration, according to Anne Joseph O’Connell, a University of California, Berkeley law professor who tracks political appointments. Along with Mr. Tillerson at State, billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, former Windquest Group chairwoman Betsy DeVos,Andy Puzder, chief executive of CKE Restaurants Holdings Inc. and former World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. CEO Linda McMahon have been tapped to play big roles in his administration.
Scott Gittrich, whose Toppers Pizza Inc. restaurant chain counts 76 restaurants in 15 states, said he has felt cast as a villain in recent years. He mentioned a speech Mr. Obama gave in Wisconsin regarding overtime pay, which in his view accused restaurant bosses of making money at workers’ expense.
Although Mr. Gittrich didn’t vote for Mr. Trump, he has taken the election as “an endorsement of what I do and my chosen vocation.” He is also heartened by Mr. Puzder’s nomination. “Holy smokes, one of us is going to be on the cabinet. Wow.”
“There is a buzz in the business community,” said EY CEO Mark Weinberger, who will join Dr. Cosgrove on the policy panel. Instead of being at loggerheads, corporate leaders may be more trusted to work alongside public-sector officials, he said.
“There’s a feeling that somehow, while we’re not going to get everything we want...our ideas will be heard and vetted,” he said.
Mr. Trump has made room on his schedule for executives, hosting dozens of business leaders since his election. In a Dec. 14 meeting with Silicon Valley executives, the president struck a conciliatory tone with tech leaders who didn’t necessarily support his campaign stances.
Mr. Trump declared an open line to his office. “You call my people, you call me. It doesn’t make any difference,” he said, according to a video of the start of the meeting. “We have no formal chain of command around here.”
by Rachel Feintzeig
This article was originally published on wsj.com on 1/24/2017