Siemens Boss Weighs in on Trump

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It's a US company too, Ms. Trump. Picture source: Reuters

Ivanka Trump did little wrong on her visit to the Siemens Technology Academy in Berlin on Tuesday. In the Siemens training center, the reception was warmer and more businesslike than at the W20 summit, where she discussed women’s economic participation with Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde, and was briefly booed for defending her father’s record on women.

At Siemens, Ms. Trump smiled at the apprentices in hoodies and jeans, listened politely to the PR people, and admired Siemens’s technology. “It’s a beautiful machine,” she said of one electronic behemoth. At her side, Joe Kaeser, the Siemens chief executive, discreetly passed on a message to her father: “We have 60,000 employees in the United States, so it’s your company too,” he murmured to his guest.

The man guiding Ms. Trump around Siemens’s state-of-the-art training center is among the most successful of Germany’s business titans. In the last two years, Siemens has seen revenues and profits boom, and its share price soar to an all-time high.

Mr. Kaeser’s public profile is soaring with it. He is also one of the most political of senior German executives, more outspoken than any of his colleagues. On world affairs and political questions, he takes a public position on topics others prefer to discuss behind closed doors.

On Monday night, the 60-year-old CEO spoke frankly about Mr. Trump.

“We have 60,000 employees in the United States, so it’s your company too.”

Joe Kaeser, Siemens CEO

At a Handelsblatt public event at the Hannover Messe industrial fair, he recounted a conversation with the American president during Ms. Merkel’s visit to Washington last month. “I told him: We’d have to do a lot of exporting to have as many Mercedes on 5th Avenue as iPhones in Germany.” In other words: trade deficits are complex and Mr. Trump’s analysis was faulty. His comments “didn’t go down so well,” with the president, said Mr. Kaeser.

The Siemens CEO said he wanted to make a larger point. Protectionism was not the answer to reintegrating millions of American workers left behind by globalization. A modern system of training and retraining was their only hope, perhaps along the lines of Germany’s dual education system. Exactly what he was showing Ms. Trump on today’s tour of the Siemens facility.

Mr. Kaeser linked his plea for free trade with a smart political point, saying Mr. Trump’s view was not only doomed to fail – the old jobs will never come back from Mexico and China – but actually went against Americans’ own choices as citizens and customers. After all, they choose foreign products in their millions.

Turning to Germany, the Siemens CEO said the country must face up to the reality of immigration: “We have no clear rules for people who want to come to our country,” he said, appealing for immigration laws to protect those fleeing from persecution and war, while integrating newcomers into German economic life.

Many companies had leapt at the influx of refugees in 2015, he said, seeing in the million new arrivals the possibility of filling the country’s labor gap. “Of course, that was stupid, really stupid,” he said. Migrants needed to be trained, and that was not an easy process.

Germany’s brutal past, he said, meant it had trouble taking the decisions needed to make controlled and workable immigration a reality. But only clarity could bolster Germany’s credibility in the world.

At the Hannover event, the Siemens boss was asked if he had political ambitions – perhaps a senior government post after this year’s elections? “There’s nothing bigger than Siemens,” was the smiling reply. Not exactly a refusal.

In any case, the straight talk went down well with his audience, drawing responses reminiscent of those for Mr. Trump on the campaign trail. “There’s a guy with guts,” said one audience member about Mr. Kaeser. “If more German businessmen were like him, there’d be nothing to worry about,” said another.

Franz Hubik covers renewable energy for Handelsblatt in Düsseldorf. Brian Hanrahan is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author:

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