A decision in Great Britain this week to exit the European Union would be felt in Minnesota, in the sense that anything with global implications is felt in a state with a large, highly connected economy and a stable of multinational headquarters.
Companies like 3M, Cargill, Medtronic and Ecolab do billions in sales in Europe each year, and a crack in the eurozone would roil markets, currencies and continental politics more than anyone would like. As Britons prepare to vote Thursday, U.S. captains of industry have been lobbying against a British departure, arguing that the move would harm trade, threaten Britain’s position as a business center in Europe and weaken the global economy, at least for a time.
“Britain ought to stay in,” said Doug Oberhelman, CEO of Caterpillar and chairman of the Business Roundtable, in a conference call last week. “That market together is better as a whole.”
Britain is often the place where expanding Minnesota companies open their first sales offices because of the language and similarities in business practices, said Ed Dieter, from the Minnesota Trade Office. The United Kingdom is Minnesota’s ninth-largest export market, accounting for 2.8 percent of overseas sales by Minnesota firms in the first quarter.
But most companies wouldn’t be directly affected. Permanent European headquarters are more often based on the continent, where the logistical hurdles of the British pound and the English Channel are already overcome.
“You’re not on the continent yet,” Dieter said of England. “In the Netherlands or Belgium, where there are really good ports, and Amsterdam has a great airport, you can now get to places by rail and truck a lot easier than you can from England.”
3M’s European headquarters is in Brussels, the seat of power of the European Union.
In the medical device industry, Ireland is home to Medtronic’s headquarters, and the Irish are staying in the European Union for now. There’s no Minnesota medical device company with a European headquarters in the United Kingdom, said Frank Jaskulke, director of membership at Medical Alley, a trade group.
“Most of the device companies, if they’re doing something in the islands, it’s more Ireland than anywhere else,” Jaskulke said. “On the tax side, the Netherlands is very popular.”
The latest polls show a British exit losing in a close vote, but even if the campaign to leave the European Union prevails, it would take two or three years to work out the formalities, said John De Clue, chief investment officer at the Private Client Reserve at U.S. Bank.
The bigger problem for global business would be the geopolitical fallout. Brexit would set a precedent that weakens the chances of passage for trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership or Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, De Clue said. It would also pose a longer-term threat to European unity.
“There’s a populist movement with parties who want to leave the eurozone,” said De Clue. “This could embolden the parties in other countries who have been saying they should exit.”
A few companies in Minnesota will be watching more closely than others as Britons vote Thursday, and political shifts highlight the need for bosses in Minneapolis to spend time thinking about diplomacy, said Paul Vaaler, the Mooty Chair in law and business at the University of Minnesota.
Wells Fargo reportedly closed on a deal this spring to buy a 225,000-square-foot office building in London’s financial center for $293 million and occupy it entirely. Pentair, after its 2012 merger with Switzerland’s Tyco, set up its headquarters for tax purposes in Manchester, England. Neither company would make someone knowledgeable available for an interview.
“This is why we should care,” said Vaaler. “These Minnesota companies that are based in the U.K. for tax reasons, and there are companies investing in the U.K., like Wells Fargo.”
Banks with major subsidiaries in London will consider moving them, Vaaler said, and Frankfurt, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam will be attractive.
“If this wasn’t on the radar screen for Randy Hogan,” Vaaler said of Pentair’s CEO, “now it is.”