CEO Corner

4 Things you can do with your Data Right Now

Chief Executive Magazine -

In deciding what they want to achieve with their data, companies can usually begin by looking for ways to do more business with existing customers. For example, says Andrew Mahler, CEO of Mx Group, a digital marketing company, companies can use their customer data to:

ACCELERATE REPLACEMENTS. A manufacturer of industrial equipment might look through its data to find customers who are buying more spare parts to prolong the life of their purchases. The manufacturer can analyze purchasing trends to help customers understand how replacing equipment can be more effective than continuing to repair it. They can also develop best practices and policies for proactively contacting customers when replacements are appropriate.

“COMBINING data FROM SEPARATE PARTS OF A SINGLE COMPANY can help you connect dots and leverage EXiSTING relationships  to gain credibility.”

OPTIMIZE UPGRADES. Companies can look for customers who are likely to want a higher-end version of products. When customers buy a given product, says Mahler, “they may not realize that there is a more optimal product that you have for them.” Based on the usage and type of business involved, a company may find that upselling may meet certain types of customers’ needs more effectively.

EXTEND THE PRODUCT FOOTPRINT. Where can the company offer customers ancillary products? For example, customers ordering server hardware may be interested in purchasing bundled networking equipment as well. Or, customers using a company’s product in one area of an industrial plant may have other areas where that same product could be used in entirely different applications.

LEVERAGE CUSTOMER RELATIONSHIPS AND SUPPORT ACCOUNT-BASED MARKETING. Companies can combine internal and external data to gain a more comprehensive view of an entire customer organization. Thus, a manufacturer selling to one division of a company might uncover opportunities to offer its products to other division. It could then work through its existing contacts to gain referrals for the new business and use the data-driven insight to support the new sales effort. The data, says Mahler, “can help you connect the dots and leverage the relationships you have to gain credibility.”

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Does Diversity in the Boardroom Matter?

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While driving gender and ethnic diversity among directorship roles has gained traction at large, consumer-facing companies, movement has lagged across corporate America as a whole. Yet a growing body of research suggests boosting diversity in your boardroom is worth considering.

If you’re the CEO of a consumer products company, it’s not hard to make a case for diversity. After all, the market you’re after is more heterogeneous than ever, so strategically it makes sense to have an executive team and a board that reflects that mix of cultures, genders and ethnicities.

But what if you head up an industrial B2B company? Does pursuing a more diverse board do anything more than show the world you’re keeping up with 21st century social trends? Given how few sitting CEOs are women and minorities, does this mean you should abandon a long-standing strategy of seeking out experienced CEOs to serve as directors? In principle, you might agree with the value of a diverse culture. But in practice, does it make sense for your business?

“The role and responsibility of the board is to the shareholder, and the shareholder doesn’t care about diversity,” says Paula Cholmondeley, CEO of The Sorrel Group, a director education consultancy. “They want the best ‘team’ that can deliver and enhance the value of the organization.” Cholmondeley would know; she has served on eight corporate boards and on just about every committee, as well as held senior financial and strategy positions at a variety of large companies, including Owens Corning, The Faxon Company, Blue Cross of Greater Philadelphia and Westinghouse Elevator Company.

Source: PwC

In her view, diversity isn’t something you seek because you want the positive PR or because it’s the nice thing to do, but rather, because you want to fill out the mix of skills the company needs in the boardroom to succeed in its mission.

“The fallacy that has, I think, turned into a belief and is wrong is that the only team or the best team to produce results is a team of CEOs,” she says. “But companies don’t run based on teams of CEOs, and a CEO doesn’t surround himself with duplicates of himself. Every corporation that excels at anything is structured to bring a multiplicity of topical skills to the team.”

Boards, too, need a multiplicity of skills. Regardless of the type of company or the industry in which it operates, a lack of diversity in the boardroom—based on gender, ethnicity, age, background, nationality, etc.—could hurt, even if everyone sitting around the table is a CEO. “The stronger boards are composed of a mixture of CEOs and of people with senior functional skills, which will vary based on the company and the industry,” says Cholmondeley, noting that contrary to long-held tradition, previous board experience shouldn’t necessarily be a prerequisite. “Once you say you want a senior functional skill, you’re not talking about the CEO.”

While many companies have embraced this point of view, others feel that they can’t afford to prioritize diversity in the boardroom and/or question the business case for doing so. Yet a growing body of research suggests that diversity at the top correlates with greater innovation and success. A global study by McKinsey & Co. found that returns on equity for companies ranking in the top quartile of executive-board diversity were 53% higher, on average, than they were for those in the bottom quartile. EBIT margins at the more diverse companies were also 14% higher, on average, than those of the least diverse companies.

Another study by the Center for Talent Innovation found that employees at companies with more diverse leadership were 45% more likely to report that their firm’s market share grew over the previous year and 70% more likely to report that the firm captured a new market. And consensus around the sentiment that boardroom diversity matters is building among business leaders. In the 2016 update of its governance principles, the Business Roundtable strongly endorsed a link between racial and ethnic diversity in boards and board effectiveness and the creation of long-term shareholder value.

Given the growing body of evidence, few companies, even B2B, industrial, non-consumer-facing manufacturers, can afford to ignore the growing diversity of workforce and consumer populations, asserts Idalene Kesner, dean of Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, who spent many years researching board diversity in the ’80s and ’90s.

“I would say there are very few industries today that aren’t touched by the need to be responsive to our diverse population,” says Kesner, who sits on the board of Berry Plastics, a global manufacturer of packing solutions. “One of the things Berry does is design containers. If you can imagine, at the most mundane level, a container that fits a woman’s hand or a container that’s more appealing to various diverse groups—that definitely has sales implications to it.”

Ronald C. Parker, president and CEO of The Executive Leadership Council, agrees, adding that the customers of B2B companies are looking for diversity in their vendors. “They’re now insisting that the reps who call on them look like the population they serve.”

Companies like DuPont, MasterCard, Coca-Cola, Ford, P&G and The Walt Disney Company have all taken steps to actively engage diverse suppliers. As DuPont pledges as part of its formal commitment to maintaining a diverse supply chain: “Ensuring our supply base reflects our customers, employees and the communities where we live and work is a key business strategy.”

Making it Happen
Despite this building momentum, progress on moving the needle with boardroom diversity has been sluggish. According to a study by Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity, women and minorities held 30.8% of Fortune 500 boards seats in 2016—up from just over 25% of board seats in 2012. When compared with the exclusively male, all-white boards that once held the lion’s share of boardrooms in Corporate America, that’s a significant change. But compared with the fast pace of changing demographics in the U.S.—and noting the fact that women make up over half of the consumer population—some argue women and minorities are still significantly underrepresented.

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PENN MUTUAL: Diversity-Driven Success

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It would be easy to look at Penn Mutual’s board, 42% of which is now held by women and minorities, and credit Eileen McDonnell, the first female CEO in the company’s 170-year history. But McDonnell is quick to point to her predecessor, Robert Chappell, who chose her as his successor.

“Bob always sought out the best talent to fill roles at headquarters, so our leadership today is over 40% female,” she says, noting that two of Penn Mutual’s subsidiaries are run by women and that when Chappell left in 2011, women already accounted for four of 11 board seats. “He had been, throughout his career, gender-neutral and color-blind. He’s just always sought to surround himself with the best talent for the time.”

“I view that I become better and stronger as an executive and as a board member by surrounding myself with very talented people, in some cases more talented than myself, and learning from them.”

McDonnell says that for each of Penn Mutual’s recent successes—the company just reported the best sales and earning numbers in its history—she can point to ways each member of her diverse board contributed, typically by agitating for some change or focus that otherwise might have been neglected. “There is a direct link to our directors who, because of their discipline and experience and thought process, come at each opportunity and challenge differently,” she says.

As a private company, Penn Mutual isn’t under the same scrutiny and pressure to diversify the board as it might be if it were public. But in McDonnell’s view, it shouldn’t be done out of a sense of obligation or to appease critics, but rather because having divergent views around the boardroom table is the best path to success.

“I view that I become better and stronger as an executive and as a board member by surrounding myself with very talented people, in some cases more talented than myself, and learning from them,” she says, adding that CEOs who are reluctant to surround themselves with people who think differently, and who may challenge them, are at a competitive disadvantage. “Because the reality is we all have our blind spots and if we don’t have people like that around us, we may miss something.”

Read more: Does Diversity in the Boardroom Matter?

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When Activists Come Hunting: How CEOs Should Respond

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Shareholder activists have more and more heads on their wall—behold those of General Electric’s Jeffrey Immelt and Uber’s Travis Kalanick, of the most recent vintage—and more CEOs and boards are focusing energy on how not to be their next victims.

Nestle USA CEO Mark Schneider hasn’t even been able to enjoy his new job since activist investor Daniel Loeb has been pushing his plan for growth at the sluggish CPG giant behind his Third Point hedge fund’s $3.5 billion stake in the company.

Avon Products CEO Sheri McCoy’s expected early retirement comes in the wake of poor financial performance by the company—and activist shareholder pressure. And Buffalo Wild Wings CEO Sally Smith also just agreed to bow out early in a similar scenario.

“Activists have learned that it works and they have been very successful at driving change, or at least changes that enhance their returns,” said Jack “Rusty” O’Kelley, managing director of the New York office of Russell Reynolds recruiters. “And institutional investors have determined that this is something they’re willing to partner with to drive change in cases where boards and CEOs weren’t being responsive to them.”

“boards and CEOs need to genuinely listen to what activists have to say. These are smart people with very good teams who have spent a lot of time analyzing the company.”

Increasingly, in fact, activist investors are targeting the demise of CEOs and the exit of certain board members, not just changes or improvements at the company or in the stock price, as the goal of their efforts. Already through May, activists had started nine campaigns targeting top management, the fastest pace on record, according to FactSet.

It’s not just a matter of blood in the water: CEOs aren’t just being assessed for weakness by activists based on financial performance.

Another factor is that CEOs across entire industries seem to be overwhelmed these days by the speed of change. “Retail is a great example,” said Micah Alpern, principal at A.T. Kearney consultants. “So much is happening and there are so many factors you have to consider to be effective and remain relevant today.”

Also, Alpern said, CEOs are getting battered by the immediacy and transparency of digital media. “Any mistake you make, any move you make, is magnified nowadays,” he said. “That creates pressure that maybe really doesn’t need to be there. You may have just one bad quarter, but if that gains some momentum on social media, it can create pressure that maybe otherwise wouldn’t be there.”

Carol SingletonSlade, global energy and U.S. board practice leader for Egon Zehnder recruiters, said that activists also are applying new criteria for gauging the performance of CEOs in addition to traditional financial measures.

“CEOs across industries are measured against how they have led their organizations through digital transformation, if their business strategies have allowed them to remain relevant amid constant disruption, and at the same time, how well they have been able to maintain company culture while being under intense pressure to perform and remain agile.”

How should CEOs respond?
So what should CEOs and board members do? How should they act before they’re targeted by activists and once they are? Here are 6 pointers.

1. First, listen. Once approached, boards and CEOs “need to genuinely listen to what activists have to say,” O’Kelley said. “These are smart people with very good teams who have spent a lot of time analyzing the company.”

Dennis Zeleny, a consultant to CEOs and boards on compensation, culture and corporate change, said that “engagement is necessary no matter what. Long gone are the days when a CEO or board can ignore activists as non-credible and hope they go away. They just don’t go away.”

And in fact, boards and CEOs often have been considering the very prescriptions made by activists. But sometimes, O’Kelley said, they can’t disclose that to the investors—at least not yet.

2. Don’t count on a quick fix. Activist shareholders, having stalked their quarry often for years, aren’t going to go away just because a CEO proffers some idea for quickly changing the equation, such as spinning off an operation or announcing a new cost-cutting goal.

“There rarely are successful transformations that take only a quarter or six months,” Alpern said. “Most take two or three years.”

But it’s a good idea to go for a quick win if it’s available. “You need stories to show your plan is having an impact, that it’s successful,” Alpern said. “You can’t just say ‘give it three years and trust me’—that won’t put activists off.”

3. Be steadfast. Typically, CEOs have skills and ego strength that helped get them to the top. They may need to bring all of that to bear and more to survive scrutiny or a campaign by activist shareholders.

“They need to say to directors and shareholders, ‘We have this plan, and here are the proof points of why I know it can work,” Alpern said. “And they should say to the board, ‘I know how to deal with this. That’s why you hired me.’”

4. Emphasize succession. Boards and CEOs should heighten their attention to succession planning as one defense against shareholder activism.

“It’s the best defense,” SingletonSlade said. Being armed “with a succession plan that identifies, cultivates and selects candidates desired by investors [creates] an opportunity to have a voice in selecting a candidate with competencies best suited to lead” in the event of a CEO shakeup.

5. Regularly engage all shareholders. If CEOs don’t have a regular plan to inform and engage shareholders beyond annual meetings and quarterly reports, O’Kelley said, they should create one. “Shareholders are aware if you’re trying to avoid engaging with them,” he said.

6. Have a plan. CEOs must be harboring a game plan for when they’re engaged by activists. “Talk about strategy and [how to handle it] with all your constituencies,” Alpern said. “And you can’t just be a visionary—you also have to show results.”

Zeleny said that if a dispute turns into a proxy fight, “be prepared to spend a great deal of money. And it will take more of the CEO’s and board’s time than they can imagine. Make a plan for this so that proper focus on the business is not lost.”

Yet, Zeleny said, “If CEOs and boards show they’re listening and being responsive and that they also have a better path forward, they will win the day.”


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CEOs are Doing a Lot to Boost the Digital IQ in U.S. Schools

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Across America, CEOs and their companies are responding to the urgent need to overhaul the education system, because they want to continue to maintain the nation’s edge in digital tech and to be able to eclipse recent gains made by demonstrably more capable school systems in other countries.

But their response isn’t typically to try to influence public-education policy, which has proven over the decades to be very resistant to innovation and probably incapable on its own of rescuing America’s knowledge edge for the next generations.

Not surprisingly, these chiefs of Silicon Valley and tech companies elsewhere are engaging in improvements directly and often personally, helping to start new tech-oriented schools, engage partners, even design curricula in their efforts not only to help ensure a steady stream of digitally capable workers for their own companies, but also to keep the U.S. technology establishment leading the world.

CEOs including Marc Benioff of Salesforce, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Reed Hastings of Netflix are using some of the same techniques on school transformation that helped make their companies so crucial to the U.S. economy. They are influencing the subjects that schools teach, the classroom tools that teachers use and fundamental approaches to learning.

“Given the changes in innovation that are underway with artificial intelligence and automation, we need to try everything we can to find which pathways work.”, for example, is a major nonprofit group financed with more than $60 million from Silicon Valley with the stated goal of getting every public school in the U.S. to teach computer science. Meanwhile, Benioff has emerged as a major funder of San Francisco’s public schools. And Hastings has donated to a nonprofit charter-school fund that bought a math platform which had impressed him–and which today is used by more than 2 million students for supplemental instruction.

“They are experimenting collectively and individually in what kinds of models can produce better results,” said Emmett D. Carson, chief executive of Silicon Valley Community Foundation. “Given the changes in innovation that are underway with artificial intelligence and automation, we need to try everything we can to find which pathways work.”

A handful of senior leaders from Cisco, General Electric, Rockwell Automation, Microsoft and educational institutions, from both coasts and the Midwest, joined to form the IoT Consortium, a not-for-profit organization whose goal is to help grow the workforces needed to drive digital transformation that is being enabled by the Internet of Things.

DesignTech is a high school in Silicon Valley that is jointly funded by Stanford University and Oracle, built around principles of technology-design thinking and intended to help create a next generation of workers. And Cisco has launched a college-scholarship program specifically for high-school kids who want to aim at careers in cybersecurity.

But CEOs are working the public-policy angle too. In the recent, highly publicized meeting between President Trump and CEOs from the tech community who oppose him in areas such as immigration, Apple CEO Tim Cook made a point of telling him that “coding should be a requirement in every public high school”–and that the federal government should play a big role.

There also are growing public-policy initiatives on state and local levels, as well by CEOs and their allies, especially in areas where the perception is they’ve been left out of America’s digitally-based future.

For example, in Arkansas, chiefs of small tech companies were instrumental in helping Gov. Ada Hutchinson and the Arkansas Economic Development Council last year pass reforms that require public high schools to count coding classes as a math credit toward graduation and to allow seniors to take coding as a fourth math credit for graduation instead of trigonometry or calculus.

The idea is to signal strongly to students, parents, teachers, educators and business people that Arkansas wants to be a redoubt for digital competency in the middle of the country.

“We want to build a pipeline of new talent here,” said Rob Lentz, partner and chief strategy officer of Elyxor, a software-engineering consulting firm that moved its headquarters from Boston to Little Rock in 2015–and plans to grow from a staff of about 10 to 50 people in the next two years.

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Digital Transformation: How Companies Rethink, Retool and Reboot Alongside Government Partners

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The dynamics of the win-win that public-private partnerships can offer are clear: Faced with the need to embrace technological advances to stay competitive, companies need both access to capital and workers with the skills to help them leverage the capabilities of innovations in areas like data science, cloud computing and smart manufacturing.

Meanwhile, state and local governments looking to spur economic growth need to attract new businesses, as well as nurture existing ones. Recognition of that potential for mutual benefit is the driving force behind a growing number of public-private partnership initiatives.

In Indiana, that process starts with a dialogue with the CEOs of companies operating in the state or considering expanding there about what would move the needle, Ian Steff, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC), told CEOs gathered for a recent Chief Executive Magazine roundtable co-sponsored by the IEDC.

“These are industry-driven partnerships centered on areas like energy storage, cybersecurity and the Internet of Things,” said Steff. “We ask industry: ‘What do you need in terms of matching resources or shared infrastructure to ensure that Indiana continues to lead in the sectors we’ve led for so many years in advanced manufacturing, life sciences and information technology?’”

Often, the answer is a skilled workforce. Farooq Kathwari, CEO of Ethan Allen, pointed out that while tax incentives get a lot of media attention, skilled labor and a friendly regulatory environment are the real deal-breakers for his company. “For us, the right labor is number one, and then the overall environment for working with the government needs to be good. After that it’s always good to get some benefits, but that will be third or fourth on the priority list.”

Ensuring that the skills being taught at local colleges and universities are those the companies based there need is one way to address the workforce issue, noted Steff, who cited efforts in his state as an example. “Our former lieutenant governor, Sue Ellspermann, is now the president of Ivy Tech Community College, our largest college system,” he said. “She’s been transforming that place to ensure that we’re keeping up [by] changing curriculums to meet the skill set needs of companies.”

Companies, too, can spur academic change at the local level. Danbury, Connecticut-based Ethan Allen is among an increasing number of companies working directly with colleges and universities to develop the talent it needs. “We are next-door neighbors to Western Connecticut State University, and we have utilized that quite well in terms of internship programs and recruiting,” said Kathwari. “We’re deeply involved with the university.”

ProspEquity Partners has also been building relationships with schools around the country over the past decade to find and nurture talent. “We think the relationships we’ve developed with five or six engineering schools give us very solid insight into where the talent lies and the ability to develop successful internship programs,” reported Chris Ramonetti, CEO and managing partner, who added that academic partnerships can also bring insights on innovation. “We have an academic board of advisors from various universities who provide a touchpoint for what’s coming next in technological innovation.”

However, as important as educating locals in industry-specific skills is to many companies, it’s just one piece of the equation, the roundtable participants agreed, citing regional ecosystems that can offer talent, shareable resources and access to financing as ideal environments in which to locate. These were defined as “communities where collisions of resources and relationships build for greater innovation overall.”

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Coca Cola: Leadership Transition at an Iconic Brand

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Muhtar Kent

After nine years as CEO of Coca Cola, Muhtar Kent handed the reins to James Quincey, the company’s COO and president, on May 1. The move was not a surprise: Quincey has been the heir apparent at Coke for a couple of years, and Kent’s retirement was announced in December. Kent will be staying on as chairman.

Coca-Cola is #64 on the CEO1000 list of largest public and private companies (ranked by revenue), sponsored by Chief Executive and RHR International.

Quincey earned his degree as an electrical engineer, but he quickly turned to business and a career path that has included a consulting stint followed by two decades at Coke. And he comes well-recommended: “I know Jim and like him, and believe the company has made a smart investment in the future with his selection,” noted Warren Buffett—whose Berkshire Hathaway firm holds 400 million Coke shares.

James Quincey, CEO of Coca-Cola, at left

Quincey is taking charge of one of the world’s great iconic brands, but he will nevertheless be dealing with some significant challenges—a fundamental one being shifting consumer tastes, as more people turn to healthy beverages.

Total revenue has declined for the last several years, and just before he assumed the CEO role, Quincey announced that the company would be cutting 1,200 jobs from a group of 5,500 corporate positions—part of a plan to save about $800 million through 2019. As a Coke veteran, however, Quincey is well acquainted with the company‘s strengths and challenges—and as he said in a recent interview, “I don’t think we’re broken, but I don’t think we’re where we need to be.”

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CEOs Urge Congress to Get Cracking on Tax Reform

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Business Roundtable leaders at a recent meeting with the president.

In their most forceful message to lawmakers yet, four of America’s biggest business groups have united to urge congressional Republicans to start laying the groundwork for tax cuts immediately.

Business has become frustrated by a lack of progress in the president’s reform agenda, bogged down by wrangling over the shape of its health care policy in the Senate.

No other reforms under consideration in Congress are more important than tax cuts, the four groups said, indicating they’d be happy if the administration at least partly stopped devoting so much time to replacing and repealing Obamacare and started focusing on tax, too.

There has been buzz eluding to the fact that tax savings they’re looking to achieve by cutting into the health care program would be used to help determine and fund whatever tax program is then proposed. However, it appears that business leaders feel that will take too long and want to see real change much sooner.

“We understand that the Senate is actively considering health care legislation, but it is important that the House start the budget process now, so that reconciliation instructions will be available to move tax reform legislation expediently.”

The call was voiced in a joint letter to House Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan signed by CEO peer group Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Federation of Independent Business.

It comes after the International Monetary Fund this week cut its growth forecast for the U.S. economy to 2.1% in 2017 and 2018, partly because it had removed the assumed stimulus from proposed tax cuts from its forecasts.

In the letter, the business groups ask the administration to adopt a fiscal year 2018 budget resolution that includes so-called “reconciliation instructions” that would pave the way for tax cuts.

“We understand that the Senate is actively considering health care legislation, but it is important that the House start the budget process now, so that reconciliation instructions will be available to move tax reform legislation expediently,” the letter said.

Republicans only have a slim 52-48 Senate majority, exposing them to filibusters by Democrats. With reconciliation instructions established, Republicans could avoid a Democrat filibuster and pass tax reform legislation with a simple majority.

Several restrictions, however, would still apply.

Perhaps the most relevant in this case is one that states that reconciliation bills can’t increase deficits outside the 10-year budget window. That means Republicans will have to agree on tax reform that is revenue neutral if they want it to last more than a decade.

Details of Trump’s tax plans remain scant and there’s still some conjecture, including among CEOs, over how cuts will be funded. Some House Republicans, including Ryan, still like the idea of imposing a 20% levy on imports, or a so-called border adjustment tax, but retail CEOs and other lawmakers fear it could push up the cost of households goods.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has suggested that a proposed cut in the corporate tax rate to 15% would largely fund itself by stimulating the economy, though Republican debt hawks will nevertheless be wary that cutting taxes so deeply will blow out the budget and breach the 10-year reconciliation revenue rule.

Whatever the administration decides to do, business wants it to start deciding now.

“The federal tax code has weighed America down for far too long,” the business groups’ letter said. “You now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to substantially improve America’s economy, but accomplishing this task may well require the special legislative procedures attendant to a budget resolution’s reconciliation instructions.”

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