Switzerland

Details

  • Date: 6/25/2014

“More than just banks, chocolate and watches” 

Interview with: James Breiding, founder and owner of Naissance Capital

You have written the bestselling book “Swiss Made” about the untold story behind Switzerland’s success. Tell us something that people don’t know about the country.

In the typical perception of Switzerland, international people think of banks, chocolate and watches. However, there is a lot more to the country. Switzerland has a huge variety of industries from capital goods to tourism, chemicals and pharmaceuticals to non-profit organizations. The range and extent of its industrial base is poorly appreciated. Familiarity gained from a few days at the World Economic Forum in Davos or on mountain holidays confers a false or superficial understanding. Swiss people are by nature discrete, not prone to boast about their success.

What does “Swiss made” stand for, and what are the most spectacular Swiss successes?

Like any brand, “Swiss made” conveys expectations: it is trustworthy and reliable. It’s not cheap and there’s not much ‘sizzle’, but it delivers what it says. The most notable successes are probably in precision engineering such as watches. Its development marked the beginning of the industrial revolution: for the first time, people were remunerated by the hour rather than by the bushel – it was therefore essential to have an accurate timepiece. Imagine placing up to 400 pieces of metal in an area the size of a coin! What an engineering feat. Innovations in the watch industry spawned new products, such astiny screws used in orthopedic prostheses or small batteries that power hearing aids.

How innovative is Switzerland?

Innovation is a common theme underpinning Swiss corporate successes. According to the IMD World Competitiveness Report, Switzerland has the highest number of patents per head of population, and has won more Nobel Prizes per capita than any other country. The percentage of corporate revenues spent on research and development is higher than in most competitor  economies, and Switzerland is the sixth-biggest spender on R&D as a percentage of GDP. This pro-innovation bias helps in the face of low-cost rivals, driving concentration on high value-added products where labor costs are less key. If I had to choose one word that summed up the nature of free market capitalism, its DNA, it would be ‘innovation’. It is those who are able to provide products or services that are better, different or cheaper who win this fierce and ceaseless contest. In a small country Swiss Inc. depends on exports. One should not underestimate that Swiss Inc. has had to fight with a shorter sword owing to the inherent preference for domestic products and the inexorable rise of the Swiss Franc. For any Swiss company producing in Switzerland and exporters this makes for a permanent fitness contest.

What differentiates Switzerland from other countries?

It was not so long ago that nations believed in a Westphalean notion that a country’s strength is based on the size of its army, the extent of its colonies or natural resource base, or its population size. Switzerland has been at the front of the curve demonstrating that it is trade that matters. No other country of its size has achieved such a high level of disposable income while maintaining a relatively equitable distribution of rewards. Few or no countries hold such leading positions in so many industries. No other developed country has so far avoided burdening future generations with large debts, fostering illusions among its people about meeting pension and healthcare costs. In no other country are individual citizens so powerful and so certain that their voices count. As public opinion of politicians and public sector bodies in most western democracies has fallen to an all-time low, the effectiveness of the Swiss system of governance is a powerful indicator of success.

What role has the state played in the development of the Swiss industry?

The Swiss have managed to minimize government involvement in the economy. An important part of the Swiss recipe for success relies on strong industry and weak government. This is the opposite of say France, which manages affairs “top-down”, deciding the automobile or nuclear industry is a priority, and allocating capital accordingly. The state is notoriously bad at allocating resources.

How important is the educational system for Switzerland’s success?

The Swiss educational system is critical to success. Teachers are well paid and valued in society. There is an ecosystem of commitment among students, parents, schools and the community. Companies like Google chose Switzerland because they felt the nearby ETH and EPFL – ranked among the world’s best schools for computer engineering – provide a wealth of potential talent.

Can Switzerland’s success story last?

No pattern of behavior or model for success can remain unaltered indefinitely. However, the Swiss have a survival mindset. Small countries are more vulnerable than large ones. Steve Jobs once said that “only the paranoid survive”, which might help explain the Swiss ability to transmute failure into success, and the willingness to let ailing businesses die an appropriate death.

Why do Multinational Corporations love Switzerland?

The decisive success factor for these companies is ‘attraction’ rather than ‘innovation’. Multinationals increasingly allocate people, capital and technology to locations as if it were a chess board – based on where they believe they will achieve optimal returns. Each company weighs a cocktail of considerations differently, but factors such as low levels of regulation; well-functioning infrastructure; proximity; low taxes; schools for expatriates and quality of life figure in the analysis. Don’t underestimate the impact of partners or children complaining each day about living in Dubai, Brussels or Singapore. Spouses like Swiss values as much as the Swiss do.
 

James Breiding

James Breiding
Founder and owner of Naissance Capital