By Vanessa Fuhrmans
German Chancellor Angela Merkel brings to the White House on Friday a cadre of corporate chieftains up against a tough balancing act: preserving their deep business ties with the U.S. while facing pressure to respond to divisive Trump policies.
For years, chief executives of foreign firms followed an unwritten rule: steer clear of U.S. politics. Now, as a new administration in Washington pursues an America-first agenda, some overseas CEOs are feeling the pressure to speak up. While numerous U.S. chiefs have come out for or against some of President Donald Trump's policies, their foreign counterparts navigate a more complicated path, and could risk losing influence or business in one of the world's largest markets.
BMW AG, whose CEO, Harald Krueger, is part of Ms. Merkel's planned delegation to Washington, has already found itself a target of the president, who earlier this year warned that the luxury auto maker would face a border tax on cars it exported from Mexico to the U.S. Another CEO scheduled to attend Friday's White House meeting, Siemens AG's Joe Kaeser, also exemplifies the tricky political choices overseas business leaders face.
Siemens has spent years building the U.S. into its biggest market, employing 50,000 workers in the U.S. and establishing a presence in Washington. Yet, Mr. Kaeser has openly disagreed with the new administration over the president's initial travel ban, which temporarily blocked U.S. entry to people from seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees.
"It worries me personally that we're hearing a tone that doesn't fit with our idea" of America, he said at the industrial giant's shareholders meeting on Feb. 1.
Days before the Jan. 27 executive order on immigration, Mr. Kaeser had voiced hope about Mr. Trump, calling the president's eagerness to consult business leaders a "chance for the economy."
But in Germany -- where a recent Insa poll of more than 2,000 Germans showed fewer than 12% were glad Mr. Trump was U.S. president -- Siemens officials anticipated Mr. Kaeser would be asked at the shareholders' meeting for his position on the ban and crafted a response.
The CEO and his team fell back on their general rule for wading into political debate, people familiar with the matter say -- criticize the content, not the individual. "I hope this great country will recall what has made it great," he said of the U.S. that day, without mentioning Mr. Trump by name.
Outside of Germany, other overseas business leaders have also grappled with whether to take a stand on Trump policies unpopular at home. Skanska AB CEO Johan Karlström has said the Sweden-based builder won't join the bidding beginning this month to build Mr. Trump's proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall, declaring: "We believe in openness and equality."
Hiroshi Mikitani, head of Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten Inc., which has been on a U.S. buying spree to expand in the American online shopping market, tweeted days after the first immigration ban that it moved him to tears.
Bertram Kandziora, head of Germany's Stihl AG -- one of the largest makers of chain saws and outdoor power equipment in the U.S. and which also exports from its U.S. operations to the rest of the world -- recently criticized the president in a German newspaper interview for "reaching into a rusty toolbox" of protectionist trade proposals.
Dozens of U.S. company leaders have been named to presidential advisory panels and called to White House summits. Ms. Merkel's visit, however, marks one of the few occasions that overseas business leaders are getting White House time with Mr. Trump, though some such as Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.'s Jack Ma and SoftBank Group Corp.'s Masayoshi Son paid visits to Mr. Trump at Trump Tower before the inauguration.
Mr. Trump has taken a harsh tone against some foreign firms, for instance, complaining that German car makers unfairly profit from global trade rules. BMW's Mr. Krueger has said the border-tax threats won't change the luxury auto maker's plans for a new plant in Mexico, but it will continue to also invest in its South Carolina plant.
Mr. Trump's statements have fueled worries that foreign companies won't get a fair shake in the U.S., said Mark Malloch-Brown, a former United Nations deputy secretary-general who, with Unilever PLC CEO Paul Polman, leads a commission made up of 35 international business leaders and academics that pushes companies to be more socially responsible.
Most international CEOs remain reluctant to take vocal positions on Trump policies, though. "They're not natural revolutionaries," Mr. Malloch-Brown said.
Like in the U.S., leaders of overseas-based tech firms have been among the loudest corporate voices from abroad. "To use an Australian-ism, 'This is just -- ing wrong,'" Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-founder and co-CEO of Australian software-tool maker Atlassian Corp. wrote in a blog post to employees after the January immigration order.
Atlassian and Berlin-based SoundCloud joined a U.S. tech-industry-led amicus brief last month opposing the first travel ban.
Atlassian currently has more than 200 jobs it is trying to fill in Sydney, San Francisco, Austin, Manila and other sites, a task that is made tougher by any U.S. travel ban, Mr. Cannon-Brookes said. When other senior team members asked him about joining the amicus brief, he said, it was a no-brainer. "Their approach was, "We already assume your answer is yes," Mr. Cannon-Brookes said.
Now as the Trump administration attempts to roll out a new immigration ban, "we'll play that ball as it arrives," he said. "There are far more risks in not speaking out."
Write to Vanessa Fuhrmans at [email protected]