Corporate executives scrambled to assess the fallout from the U.K. vote to leave the European Union, with some CEOs saying the move would put a chill on investment and deal-making and others vowing to stay the course.
Shocked by a surprise result at the polls that sent U.S. stocks tumbling and the British pound to a 30-year low against the dollar, companies rushed to reassure investors, customers and employees. At the same time, they called on British and European politicians to push through the mechanics of the split quickly to minimize economic disruption.
“This is not a good day for Europe and, in my view, certainly not for the U.K.,” said Dieter Zetsche, chief executive of Daimler AG, which makes Mercedes-Benz luxury cars. “Geographically, the country may be an island. Politically and economically, it is not.”
Mark White, chief commercial officer at U.S.-based logistics provider SEKO, said the company already had been hearing from retailing customers about moving some operations to the Continent rather than the United Kingdom. Caterpillar Inc., CAT -6.64 % which makes off-road dump trucks and other earth-moving machines in Britain, urged swift action in making a split happen, calling the U.K. “an intrinsic part of our European supply chain.”
Most major companies had warned that a British exit from the bloc would sow uncertainty that would hurt profits and endanger jobs. Britain, they said, might be forced to renegotiate trade pacts, country by country, to maintain current export and import tariffs. The free flow of labor between the U.K. and the EU could ebb. And if the vote causes long-term market turmoil, economic growth and company profits could take a hit for years to come.
Outside the financial sector, the immediate fallout was felt most acutely among airlines and travel companies that analysts and investors see vulnerable to a lower pound and euro. The parent of British Airways ICAGY -30.59 % issued a profit warning hours after the referendum results. Shares of International Consolidated Airlines Group SA, ICAGY -30.59 % which also owns Aer Lingus, fell 23% in London trading, and online travel companies took a hit. Priceline Group Inc. PCLN -11.37 % tumbled 11%.
The International Air Transport Association said its preliminary analysis of the “Brexit” indicates that U.K. air travel figures could fall between 3% and 5% from its existing forecast by 2020. Several U.S. airlines, however, said they had no plans to change course. Delta Air Lines Inc., DAL -8.17 % whose shares fell 8% in New York, said “it’s business as usual for the foreseeable future.”
Friday’s corporate reactions were infused with a deep sense of uncertainty across boardrooms on both sides of the Atlantic. An exit from the EU is unprecedented, and there is no road map. The legal process could take as much as two years.
Airbus Group SE, which makes wings for its jets in Britain, threatened to reassess its U.K. businesses. “This is a lose-lose result for both: Britain and Europe,” said Chief Executive Tom Enders. The company’s shares fell 6% in Paris on Friday, while shares of U.S. rival Boeing Co. BA -5.26 % slipped 5%. Mr. Enders called on politicians to proceed with the “divorce” in a way to minimize economic damage and said the plane maker would review its U.K. investment strategy “like everybody else will.”
Several auto makers suggested they would re-evaluate U.K. investments, raising the specter of possible production moves and job cuts.
Ford Motor Co. F -6.57 % , which employs 14,000 people in the U.K., said it would “take whatever action is needed” to remain competitive in Europe and maintain profitability in the region. Ford expects “the combination of a softer industry and a weaker sterling would have an adverse impact on our operations in the long term.” Its shares fell 6.6% in New York on Friday.
PSA Peugeot Citroën PUGOY -21.25 % is studying different pricing scenarios for its models “to quickly react to the market,” the Paris-based company said. Peugeot could decide to boost prices in the U.K. to account for the weaker British pound, or take a loss on selling some vehicles to protect market share. Its shares fell 18% in Paris.
BMW AG BMW -7.53 % , the Germany luxury car maker, said there would be no immediate changes at its Rolls-Royce RYCEY -8.09 % and Mini car plants in the U.K., but it said it understood “relevant conditions for supplying the European market will have to be renegotiated.” BMW shares dropped 7.5% in Frankfurt.
Some executives and advisers cautioned Brexit could put a chill on corporate deal making as boards wait to see how currencies settle and reassess the risk of doing business in the U.K. The drop in the British pound could spell trouble for Anheuser-Busch InBev BUD -5.49 % NV’s $ 108 billion deal to acquire London-based rival SABMiller PLC, SBMRY -7.82 % some analysts said.
The vote “doesn’t change our strategy of wanting to grow and expand in Europe, but it does affect the manner in how you do that,” said Andrew Clarke, finance chief at Minneapolis-based logistics provider C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc. CHRW -0.39 % “In general, I would expect you would see a pause in companies doing acquisitions in Europe and the U.K. during this period.”
Not everyone expects a slowdown. Starbucks Corp. SBUX -2.58 % said it is “continuing to pursue significant growth plans for the U.K.,” its largest market in Europe. Tony Griffiths, the London head of K&L Gates LLP, said the vote will open up “lots of opportunity for strategic legal advice in this absolutely uncharted territory.” His law firm was among many that set up 24-hour hotlines staffed with lawyers across disciplines.
Some executives cautioned that CEOs and boards shouldn’t overreact to the decision. “The big picture to keep in mind is that the U.K. is such a small portion of world GDP that economists are saying Brexit at worst will reduce growth by 0.2% over six quarters,” said Betsy Atkins, a board member at several companies, including France’s Schneider Electric SA, SU -10.74 % whose shares tumbled 11%.
In the short term, currency volatility is the biggest risk for many companies, big and small. Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, chairman of France’s Taittinger Champagne, rose at dawn for the final results. With the pound’s steep fall on Friday, his wine is suddenly more expensive for British buyers. Mr. Taittinger said he would give rebates to his British distributor at the end of the year to compensate.
“I’ve already called him,” Mr. Taittinger said, “and told him nothing would change between us.”
Corrections & Amplifications:
Tony Griffiths is head of K&L Gates’s London office. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Tony Williams was the office head. (June 24, 2016)