Hillary Clinton speaks to supporters on June 21, 2016 in Columbus, Ohio
J.D. Pooley—Getty Images
By Daniel Gross
June 23, 2016

 

Hillary Clinton just unveiled a list of 56 business executives who are endorsing her campaign. The unveiling of corporate supporters is always a symbolically important move for candidates of the Democratic party, which has generally not been aligned with big business. If the executive class, the MBAs who run things, hire, invest, are saying she is a better choice than the nominee of the historic party of business, the thinking goes, it means something.

It’s equivalent to the Republican candidate getting prominent minority endorsements.

So who is on Clinton’s list? Clinton’s list is intriguing for several reasons. It highlights how difficult endorsing candidates is likely to be for professional mangers to endorse in this campaign cycle. For very few of those endorsing are ace managers who rose through ranks at large, publicly-held companies. In fact, the overwhelming majority of them fall into one of three categories: private companies, retired, and founder/CEOs.

Privately-held companies

About a dozen of those on the list are involved with smaller, purely private companies: Silicon Valley venture capitalists like John Doerr, Anne Wojcicki, co-founder and CEO of 23andme, entertainment mogul Peter Chernin of the Chernin Group, and Laura Ricketts, co-owner of the Chicago Cubs (and daughter of hard-core Republican funders.)

Fortune 500 giants

A larger group, about 15 or so, represent massive, mainstream, blue-blooded publicly-held, Fortune 500 companies. These are not members of the bi-coastal tech and entertainment elite, but giant employers and industrial forces like General Motors, ConAgra, DuPont, and Avon.

But here’s the thing: Virtually all the CEOs of such companies on the list are. . . retired and no longer active. The endorsers include: Dan Akerson, former chairman and CEO of General Motors; Robert Burt, retired chairman and CEO of FMC Corporation; David Crane, former CEO of NRG Energy; Andrea Jung, former CEO of Avon; Ellen Kullman, former chair and CEO of DuPont; and Gary Rodkin, former ceo of ConAgra Foods. It’s an impressive list of captains of industry. But they no longer steer the ship.

Which points out a challenge. It’s tough for active CEOs of publicly held companies to take a political position. In an age of polarization, some large percentage of employees, shareholders, family members, industry colleagues and counterparts are sure to be offended by either of the binary choices CEOs could make. And this year the polarization is at extreme levels, with both candidates supporting high negatives.

Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, is particularly – and uniquely toxic – in corporate environments in which CEOs are supposed to be the embodiment and stewards of values and culture that emphasize, diversity, tolerance, inclusion, and globalization. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich faced criticism after word leaked he was due to hold a Trump fundraiser in his home; he said he wasn’t endorsing anyone and then cancelled the event. (Of course, Warren Buffett–known Hillary Clinton supporter– offered the wary CEOs a way out when he suggested that Trump wouldn’t be bad for the economy. “I will predict that if either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton become president Berkshire will do fine,” he said.)

Where Clinton gets most of her support

Still, there is a surprisingly large class of CEOs of public companies who have the luxury of running them without any of those constraints. Why? Because they are the founders or co-founders, and either hold a controlling stake or are inextricably identified with the company they run. And it is in this area where Hillary Clinton is finding much of her corporate support.

By my count, at least 20 of those on the list fall into this founder/CEO category. I’m talking about luminaries like: Marc Benioff of Salesforce, Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway, Barry Diller of IAC, Candy Ergen of DISH Networks, Lynn Jurich, CEO and cofounder of Sunrun, Aaron Levie, co-founder and CEO of Box, Marc Pincus, co=founder of Zynga, and Jeremy Stoppelman, co-founder and CEO of Yelp. At such companies, employees, investors, and the hand-picked boards accept that the firms were built — and operate — largely in the images of their founders. Accordingly, these bosses have much more leeway in using their lofty posts to endorse personal causes.

The bravest group

Only a few executives on the lists are MBAs who went to work at somebody else’s company and have risen to a very high level.A couple are reliable Democrats: Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, a former Clinton hand (who should have some interesting conversations with Facebook board member Peter Thiel, who is a Trump delegate); and Eric Schmidt, of Alphabet.

But there are others who are surprises — and to me, quite intriguing. In endorsing Hillary Clinton, they are actually going out on something of a limb. They all report to superiors, and have to answer to employees, clients, suppliers, activist investors and board members who could get upset at their political advocacy. There’s James Murren, chairman and chief executive officer of MGM Resorts International, who hasn’t been notably political in the past; and, Jim Cicconi, senior executive vice president, AT&T service (he’s the company’s top lawyer) who is a lifelong Republican. Cicconi served in the Reagan White House and as deputy chief of staff in the first Bush administration.

Another is Wendell Weeks, the Chairman and CEO of Corning, Inc., Corning, the glass company with a long and storied history (you can read about it in this book I co-wrote many years ago.) For several generations, Corning was run by members of the Houghton family, who transitioned seamlessly from the executive suite to moderate Republican politics. Amory Houghton, Sr, the chairman from 1941 to 1961, was Eisenhower’s Ambassador to France. His son, Amory Houghton, Jr., who served as CEO from 1964 to 1983, represented upstate New York in Congress form 1986 to 2004, and was one of the last Rockefeller Republicans.

And so this former bastion of the moderate Republican establishment is now run by an executive who has endorsed a Democratic candidate for president.

Who is missing?

The list is also noteworthy for who it doesn’t include. There’s no one from Wall Street on this list.

No hedge fund studs, investment banking CEOs, or private equity honchos –even though many prominent money men (and money women) are explicitly backing Clinton and providing her with the cash to fuel the campaign.

When you’re competing in a popularity contest, it makes sense only to include endorsements from people who are popular.

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