When the most powerful man in the world takes your company to the woodshed on Twitter each morning, is it wise to move that company to his front door?
That’s a question they’re probably mulling at Amazon this week after a string of early morning tweets by President Trump bashing the retail giant for delivery deals that Trump claims (incorrectly, many experts say) cost the US Postal Service “many billions of dollars.”
It’s a charge Trump has repeatedly leveled over the years but one that took on new import after Axios reported last week that the president has “wondered aloud if there may be any way to go after Amazon with antitrust” law. Then came the tweets holding the company responsible for the death of small retailers nationwide and threatening to raise Amazon’s postal rates. The verbal assault has helped to drive Amazon’s stock price down more than 12 percent in a week, cutting into founder Jeff Bezos’s net worth by nearly $14 billion — at least on paper.
But the episode could also complicate Amazon’s closely watched search for a second headquarters.
Increasingly, it’s been looking like the company favors locating its massive campus in or around Washington, D.C., where Bezos has a home and owns the Washington Post. When Amazon in January unveiled its list of 20 finalists for the so-called HQ2, three of the sites were in metro Washington — Northern Virginia; Montgomery County, Maryland; and D.C. proper. Throw in a well-educated workforce, good transit, and the prospect of sizable tax breaks from Maryland or Virginia, and a Beltway headquarters could make a lot of sense.
But then there’s Trump. The tweeter-in-chief — with his unusually outspoken approach to corporate regulation — has taken aim at other blue-chip companies — from Boeing to drug makers. Some of the Twitter-generated controversies have blown over quickly. Others have influenced whole industries.
At this point, 17 months after Trump was elected, most major businesses have thought about how a presidential tweetstorm might shake up their business, said Tom Stringer, managing director of corporate advisory services at consulting firm BDO.
“Every company right now is probably aware of, and cognizant of, what he can do, both good and bad,” Stringer said. “It goes into the calculus” of a decision like this, he said, and whether a company might embrace Trump’s Washington or run in the other direction.
Here’s how that might play out for Amazon and HQ2.
Think out of sight, out of mind. A D.C. HQ2 would put Amazon squarely in Trump’s sights, every day, and that might be more of a hassle than any company needs. But a second headquarters in New York or Chicago or Atlanta would let Amazon blend in with dozens of other big-name corporations that call those cities home. It also could choose Boston, where being bashed by Trump is basically a badge of honor. Or head for Dallas, and give a Trump-endorsed Republican governor a big economic win in an election year. Then there’s Toronto, the only finalist outside the United States, where officials have talked up Canada’s diversity and friendly immigration policies in — a not-so-veiled — contrast with the United States. Want to send a message to Washington, they say? Go north.
If Amazon wants to influence Washington, what better way to do so than by placing its second headquarters in the heart of the swamp? The Seattle-based tech giant has scaled up its Washington presence in recent years by investing heavily in lobbying and opening new tech offices. And as Amazon’s business seeps more deeply into everyday American life, so does its agenda with the federal government on issues ranging from net neutrality to immigration policy to, yes, Postal Service shipping rates. Putting executives in close proximity to the agencies that regulate them could make a lot of sense, Stringer said, and it’s one reason why he believes Amazon will go to D.C., no matter what Trump tweets.
“When you’re have a better working relationship with the people who control what you can and can’t do, business is easier,” he said. “There’s one place you can do that.”
Ignore the noise
Think about some of the great names of American business: General Motors. IBM. Apple. Walmart. How many moved their headquarters to — or away from — Washington because of the president and the federal government? Bezos didn’t build Amazon from a modest online bookseller into an economy-altering behemoth by worrying about politicians. Instead, he worried, relentlessly, about building a company that serves its customers the best it can.
If the best place to keep doing that is Washington, D.C., then by all means Amazon should move HQ2 to inside the Beltway. If that’s someplace else — maybe Atlanta or Boston — then go there. But focus on the business and tune out the tweets. Those other great companies have outlasted many administrations. Amazon will, too.