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Andrew Ross Sorkin: Notable in Their Absence From Davos

The annual parade of boldface names at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is always striking. This year’s attendees at the meeting, which begins Wednesday, will include Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe; the billionaire Bill Gates; JPMorgan Chase’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon; and the movie star-philanthropist Matt Damon.

But just as notable are the luminaries who consistently avoid Davos, despite repeated invitations.

The billionaire Warren E. Buffett has never attended. Neither has Timothy D. Cook, chief executive of Apple, the world’s largest company by market value. (His predecessor, Steve Jobs, never went, either.) The founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, stopped going a couple of years ago, as did Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chairman. Both companies do send other executives, though.

The leaders of General Electric and IBM, Jeffrey R. Immelt and Virginia M. Rometty, are not attendees either. “I don’t go to Davos and places like that,” Mr. Immelt once said dismissively.

The World Economic Forum, for which the cost of membership and a ticket to the annual meeting is more than $70,000, is both admired and derided as a velvet-rope club for the 1 percent of the 1 percent. The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, once attended Davos only to dismiss it as “a constellation of egos involved in massive mutual orgies of adulation.”

Whatever their reasons for staying away, the leaders of some of the largest and most transformative companies are demonstrating, with their absence, the difficulty of convening a global conversation with all the main stakeholders. Given that one of the themes this year is how to address economic inequality, it would be helpful to have the world’s largest employers participate in that discussion, not to mention a sampling of rank-and-file workers, who never receive an invitation.

Over the last few weeks, I called more than a dozen A-list names (or their handlers) who either regularly go to Davos or who make a point of staying away. I was intrigued by the reasons some people turn down an invitation coveted by so many others.

Those who attend said most frequently that they did so less for the high-minded panel discussions and more for the sheer efficiency of meeting with so many peers, clients, regulators and politicians at one time. “It would take me an entire year, and I don’t know how many flights, to see the number of people I can in three days at Davos,” one top bank chief executive told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity because Davos attendance can be a polarizing issue.

In the avoider camp is Mohamed A. El-Erian, the chief of Pimco, one of the largest bond investors in the world, and someone who given his background would seem like the perfect Davos man — an Egyptian-raised, Oxford-educated global investor. He has rejected repeated invitations to Davos, skeptical of the value of speed-dating with so many clients in the Alps.

“For me, it has been and remains an issue of efficient time management,” he told me in an email. “Our general preference is for more focused and less rushed meetings.” Mr. El-Erian is so anti-Davos he once wrote an article for a magazine distributed at the forum called “Why I Won’t Go to Davos.”

“Over the years, and in the context of an increasingly unsettled and uncertain world,” Mr. El-Erian wrote, “Davos has not had much impact.”

Mr. El-Erian’s rival, Laurence D. Fink, the chairman of BlackRock, which manages more than $4 trillion, had been a skeptic, too — until this year. With such a large global business, he has become almost a head of state himself or, more precisely, as important as the head of a central bank, judging by the panel he is speaking on. Mr. Fink is the only business executive on an economic panel that includes Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank; Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England; Haruhiko Kuroda, governor of the Bank of Japan; Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister; and Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean of the Yale School of Management, who counts many Davos attendees as former students of his executive management program, said that many C.E.O.’s attended every couple of years to “meet new heads of state.” But he said many executives “complain that significant decision-makers are too diluted in number by the tidal waves of aspiring consultants and other wannabes.” (Mr. Sonnenfeld does not attend.)

Others don’t go simply for practical reasons. “It’s inconvenient to get to. There’s a lot of friction. It’s cold. There are a lot of people there. The logistics of just going down the street can be very daunting,” John Kao, chairman of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation and a longtime attendee, told Bloomberg News last year.

To be sure, this year’s event will not lack for big names. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain will be there, as will President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico. So will Jacob J. Lew, the United States Treasury secretary.

The progress they make — or try to make — may be praiseworthy. But at a time when globalization has so transformed business and economics, and at an event that bills itself as drawing the top stakeholders, it easy to understand why it is so difficult to make progress on the big issues when so many key people are not in the room.

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Posted: January 20, 2014 Monday 08:15 PM