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How to solve a problem like Trump's business empire

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Donald Trump's pledge to entrust his business empire to his sons does little to allay concerns about conflicts of interest between the incoming Republican president and the company he has run as an autocrat.

[NEW YORK] Donald Trump's pledge to entrust his business empire to his sons does little to allay concerns about conflicts of interest between the incoming Republican president and the company he has run as an autocrat.

"Even though I am not mandated by law to do so, I will be leaving my busineses (sic) before January 20th so that I can focus full time on the Presidency," the president-elect announced on Twitter late Monday.

"Two of my children, Don and Eric, plus executives, will manage them. No new deals will be done during my term(s) in office," he added.

The brief statement came after Mr Trump postponed until sometime next month a news conference originally scheduled for Thursday at which he intended to unveil arrangements for his business after he takes office.

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The 70-year-old, who is the wealthiest man to become US president, has been beset by accusations of conflict of interest ever since his shock electoral defeat of Democratic former secretary of state Hillary Clinton last month.

Those accusations have not been eased by the largely private nature of his conglomerate The Trump Organisation, which is not listed on the stock market but whose network of hotels, golf clubs and luxury residential towers stretches across 20 countries, from Britain to Dubai, from the Philippines to India.

The company releases no public statistics and in the absence of tax returns, which the billionaire has still refused to publish, relatively little is known about the extent of its interests.

According to PrivCo, which seeks to provide financial and business information on private companies, The Trump Organisation employs about 22,000 people and had revenues of US$9.5 billion in 2014.

Even Mr Trump's personal fortune is in dispute. After launching his presidential bid last June, he declared himself worth US$10 billion. Forbes estimated his fortune at US$3.7 billion in October and Bloomberg at US$2.9 billion in 2015.

The company serves as an umbrella organisation for numerous assets, which today mostly revolve around Mr Trump's marketing savvy.

Moving on from big investments of the 1980s - such as Trump Tower, the company headquarters which opened in 1983 - the company today mostly licenses the Trump name to a plethora of projects that he does not actually own.

Take for example Trump Tower in Manila, a luxury skyscraper currently under construction in the Philippines's capital.

Although he is not the owner, Mr Trump has already been paid as much as US$5 million for allowing use of his name, according to CBS.

The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, even named Jose Antonio, the chief executive officer of the company that led the project, a "special envoy" to the United States, magnifying fears about a conflict of interest.

Over the years, Mr Trump - who once told CNN he "loves debt" - has also taken out loans from creditors who are often difficult to identify, leading to fears that they could also exert an influence over the new president.

But if his creditors are unclear, his style of management is very clear, says William Klepper, who teaches executive leadership at Columbia Business School.

"He is a command-and-control type leader. He is more likely to tell people what to do than asking them what they think he could do," he told AFP.

"It is a more autocratic style," Mr Klepper said - "not uncommon" in a family business - but less suited to mature companies or democracies when "you would want more of a collaborative, incentive-style leader." His absence could also affect The Trump Organisation, where his adult children, Donald Jr, Eric and Ivanka are all vice presidents.

If his Twitter feed appears to rule out Ivanka, US media has suggested that his daughter and her husband Jared Kushner will take on some kind of role in the administration and move to Washington.

As a result a Trump presidency could see other executives promoted.

Matthew Calamari, chief operating officer, joined in 1981 as a security guard after impressing Mr Trump while working in security at the US Open, the annual tennis championship in the New York City borough of Queens.

Another loyalist is Allen Weisselberg, the discreet chief financial officer, who worked for Mr Trump's father before joining The Trump Organisation.

But even if the sons remain in charge and there are no new deals, multiple conflicts of interest would still remain, says Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a nonprofit that promotes transparency in politics.

"There is only one way to solve the conflict of interest, which is to sell off the family business," he said. "Alternatively, the business would go under the control of a trustee, whose first act would be to sell it." But Judicial Watch, another pro-transparency organisation, wrote in The New York Times that it would be "unfair" to insist that Mr Trump destroy his business.

Instead, he should completely separate from the company, not discuss any aspect of the business with his children and make public any contracts with any federal agency, foreign government or foreign corporation, it said.

AFP

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