The CEO of online retail giant Wayfair talked taxes, trade, and immigration with Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal in Pittsfield Wednesday.
Niraj Shah – a Pittsfield native turned billionaire businessman – sat down with Neal at an economic summit at Berkshire Community College. His home furnishings company, Wayfair, is opening up a call center in Pittsfield that it says will bring 300 jobs.
Neal, a Democrat from the 1st House district – and chair of the Ways & Means committee – asked Shah about his views on three headlining issues. First: taxes.
“I think it’s important to be a place that people want to do business and it’s important for people to be able to both have a high quality of standard but the government to have funds to basically try to make the world appealing or everybody," said Shah. "So I think on the personal tax side, I think taxes should be progressive, not regressive – I would agree with what I think what you believe. I do think you want taxes to try to facilitate investment and entrepreneurship, so I think there’s concepts in how taxes can help with those things that I think are valuable, and you don’t want to dissuade your locale to be the place that you attract those kinds of investments. I think, frankly, we’re a very wealthy country, so we should be able to do a lot for people in the form of education, healthcare, job training – but the expectation should also be that people have to put in effort and participate, and I think there’s a balance there.”
He then turned to trade.
“I think trade in general is good," said the CEO. "To your point, you made some comments where you do see some merit in the arguments about China, but there’s more productivity in finding an agreement – I would agree with both of those sentiments because you can’t have an unfair partnership where one takes advantage of the other. Today, the issues with China – the issues in the past might have been about foreign exchange rates and currency. Today, it’s probably more about intellectual property and technology. But there’s no question that if you look at the categories of home goods that we and anyone else in home sell, 80% of those goods are made in Asia. 60% of the goods in total are made in China. And that manufacturing is not going to come back to the United States in any significant quantity versus what’s already here, partially because this happened 20 years ago and the raw material supply chains have all moved, and the cost – it’s increasingly made by machines, even in Asia. So you want trade, because to your point, we’re just under $10 billion in sales. 10% of our business now is done outside the U.S., and that’s growing much quicker than our U.S. business. Europe is – we have 1,200 people in Berlin, which is our European headquarters. We have 15,000 people in total. And Europe is growing quite nicely. You want American companies to take advantage of these opportunities. Because while we have 1,200 people in Berlin, and we have 1,700, 1,800 in Europe, the truth is, we have 13,000 in the United States. And our headquarters in Boston, which is 7,000 people, a lot of those people are helping do work that supports our European business. It creates jobs in America when you have successful trade, and it helps American consumers if you can buy goods where the first cost is lower. So I think trade is productive. It needs to be fair, but I think it’s very productive. And to your point, it’s inevitable. Closing your borders is really not a long term strategy in today’s world by any stretch.”
Finally, he turned to immigration, noting that he is the son of immigrants. His father came to Pittsfield from India to get his master’s degree in engineering and worked at General Electric.
“I think you need policies for immigration, but I think frankly, we should make them a lot more friendly than they are today," said Shah. "Companies should be able to sponsor people, families should be able to sponsor people. If you give someone a master’s or a PhD degree in a field that is sought after – you think about all the chemist jobs that go unfilled, all the computer science jobs that go unfilled. You want to staple a green card to that. You want to encourage that person to stay in the United States, contribute to an American company, help build the U.S. economy. They’re going to buy a house, they’re going to put money back in the economy, I don’t know why you’d want that person to leave.”
The new Wayfair call center in Pittsfield will be located in the Clock Tower Business Center on South Church Street. Over the summer, some of the company’s employees staged a walkout to protest Wayfair’s sale of bedroom furniture to a southern border facility used to house migrant children.