On the road in Switzerland
Ever wonder why Switzerland, the world's oldest republic, uses CH as their international country code? It stands for Confoederatio Helvetica. It's Roman and has to do with the origin of the Swiss Confederation. In 100 B.C. the Romans blocked and prohibited the Celtic Tribe Helvetier from migrating further south. As a result, the Helvetians made Switzerland their domain.
What makes the Swiss different from their European counterparts? Adapters. I have an electric shaver and it's been no problem using the same adapter throughout Europe--that is, until I got to Switzerland. You have to use a special adapter here and methinks it's intentional. Whoever came up with this scam must have had ties with the adapter industry.
"Holderbank" Financiere Glarus Ltd.
After traversing tiny Liechtenstein in half a day it's over to Switzerland. I'll be visiting over 70 companies and organizations in Switzerland and it should be challenging because of its mountainous terrain.
Glarus, Switzerland, population of 5,000, is one of those places where it takes fifteen minutes just to find its name on a map. Riding through several different drop-dead picturesque valleys I make Glarus by nightfall. The next morning I'm up bright and early to find the head offices of "Holderbank" Financiere Glarus, the world's largest producer of cement, ready-mix concrete, aggregates and concrete chemicals. Revenues in 1995 were CHf 8.3 billion, profit CHf 629 million.
The address I have for Holderbank consists of the company name, postal code and city. I'm assuming there's no street address in the mailing address because it isn't necessary in such a small town. The front desk help in my hotel looks up the street address in the local phone book and I'm off. Hmmm, the address I'm given leads me to a small apartment duplex. This doesn't make sense. I ride into downtown and find the local tourist office, which is run by a woman out of her temporary personnel agency business. The women (I regret not getting her name) calls the number of the company found in the phone book and learns the head office lies 35 miles away in Jona.
Three hours later I arrive at Holderbank's small modern-looking three-story blue building with blue blinds several miles from downtown Jona. I make note of the fact there's no company name to be found anywhere on the exterior of the building or grounds. That seems right in line with the low-key and secretive nature of Swiss companies I've been expecting to have to contend with. Trying to enter poses a problem since the front doors are locked and there's no one occupying the reception desk. I knock on the glass doors and a minute later Dr. Juerg Meili, senior vice president, opens it up. I explain who I am and what I'm doing. Meili says all the secretarial staff is in the lunchroom downstairs in a meeting and if I can come back in half an hour when the meeting's over, he'll meet with me--in spite of not having received my advance material.
Of course my first question to Meili has to do with the wrong address I have. Actually it turns out I'm not wrong. Switzerland is divided into cantons (26 of them)--somewhat similar to our states. Holderbank is the name of a village near Glarus where the company was founded in 1912. Meili says there're tax advantages to being located in certain cantons, which is why they keep the Glarus address.
Built in 1994, nice guy Meili says 30 people work here. Zurich airport, with its extensive worldwide flight connections lies a half-hour drive away and explains why the company has no corporate aircraft.
CEO T. Schmidheiny, grandson of founder Ernest Schmidheiny, calls the shots by virtue of owning over 50% of the voting shares. Smoking is allowed in the building and it might have something to do with Schmidheiny being a pipe smoker. Matter of fact, checking out Schmidheiny's top floor corner office I count 16 pipes lined up in pipe holders on his desk. His plantless office contains eight family pictures, a computer, a one and a half-foot tall piece of quartz. Meili points out the office walls being limestone (after all, he has to toot his company's products). Schmidheiny's view? Not bad, he can see nearby Lake Zurich and vineyards on the hillsides.
Oh, oh, this can't be right. I'm in a very small office building near downtown Zug and it's suppose to be the head office for Merck AG, a pharmaceutical concern with 1995 revenues of $US4.4 billion. Turns out, Merck is incorporated in Zug for favorable tax purposes and the head office is over in Darmstadt, Germany. A few token employees work here. Jeez, will showing up at these addresses in Switzerland and finding only post office boxes become a regular occurrence?
Pelikan Holding AG
Oh, no. I'm visiting Pelikan Holding, a manufacturer of office supplies, and by the looks of its small office in a building in downtown Zug--I'm in for another disappointment.
The woman manning the office says Pelikan, is owned by another company, which is located a few miles away in neighboring Baar.
I'm now in a light industrial park and found the parent company: Metro Holding AG. Wow, this four-story, blue-glassed building with black trim must be a half-block long. This isn't going to be easy walking inside without any advance notice. I sit in one of the eight grayish-white leather chairs and three sofas in the lobby while waiting to see if I'm successful in getting a meeting. I luck out, Stephen Ulrich, legal counsel, agrees to see me.
Turns out I've stumbled into one of Europe's "big boys". Metro, besides owning Pelican, operates over 3,200 stores, including big department stores, do-it-yourself stores, hypermarkets and several thousand various supermarkets (mostly in Germany). Revenues in 1995 were 75 billion Deutsche marks. Founded in 1964, the company is owned by three shareholders: Professor Dr. Otto Beisheim, Franz Haniel & Cie Gmbh and the Schmidt-Ruthenbeck family each with one-third participation.
"So," I ask, "you're basically a German company, why are you headquartered here?" Ulrich's answer, "it's a central location and they're tax advantages". Since Ulrich is an attorney I take the opportunity to find out the poop as to why companies register in Switzerland. Ulrich says after the Second World War Switzerland's 26 cantons were looking for ways to attract business. Giving tax breaks to companies registering here proved to be very lucrative. Matter of fact, cantons started competing against each other for the business.
The company-owned building was built in 1986 and about 300 employees work here. Erwin Conradi, chairman, has a top floor corner office with a view of farmland and nearby Lake Zug. I note he's computerless and all the furniture in his office is black. The walls in the spartan boardroom are barren and the room gets plenty of use as a meeting room. It's an hour's drive to Zurich airport and the company has one corporate aircraft, a Learjet.
Landis & Gyr AG
Landis & Gyr, the world's largest supplier of coin and card operated payphones, occupies a big site next to the railroad tracks and only a few blocks from downtown Zug. With 1995 revenues of CHf 2.9 billion, profit CHf110 million, the company also develops and produces visual security devices for banknotes, ID cards, passports and visas plus electricity meters and phone cards.
The seven-story building looks to have been built in the 1970's and has the company's name atop. A big plant facility going several blocks deep lies behind the headquarters building plus across the public street sits a brand new five-story white building also with the company's name atop.
Paula Kanalz, receptionist, phones one of the executive secretaries to track down whom ended up with my advance material. Seems my letter ended on the desk of the company's corporate secretary and he gave it the thumbs down. An executive secretary tells me via the lobby phone; "we get all kinds of request and we're equal in saying "no" to everyone". Gee, I feel better.
I note the bronze bust of a man in the lobby yet there's no name. Is it Mr. Landis or Mr. Gyr? Then again, for all I know Landis and Gyr could be the names of two towns somewhere in Switzerland. Even the receptionist doesn't know who it is.
Cie Financiere Richemont AG
This is the kind of headquarters I've been expecting to find in Switzerland: a low-key, five-story red brick building overlooking the lakefront with only a small plaque identifying the occupant and that's what I find at Cie Financiere Richemont.
Gertrud Almgren, personnel and administration manager, gives me a warm welcome and extensive tour of the place. Built in 1992, the company-owned building overlooks Lake Zug and has 15 people working here. That's a small number of staff here considering this big holding company had 1995 revenues of 3.9 billion pounds, profit 688 million pounds. What does the company do? It holds controlling interest in a variety of businesses including Rothmans International, the big tobacco manufacturer. It owns 69% of Vendome Luxury Group which in turn owns some of the world's most famous names in luxury goods: Cartier, Alfred Dunhill, Piaget, Sulka, Chloe, Karl Lagerfeld, Mount Blanc and Baume & Mercier. Richemont has holdings in electronic media companies (pay television) plus owns over 50% of Hanover Direct, the mail order catalog concern.
With 15 employees there's no cafeteria, but there're plenty of places to eat being only several blocks from downtown Zug. Though here's no fitness center employees do have use of shower facilities.
From Managing Director Johann Rupert's third floor corner office he's got a great view of the lake. I count one plant, a computer and a pack of cigarettes on his desk. Yep I do check to see if they're a company brand and they are (Rothmans, Dunhill and Peter Stuyvesant are several of the company's biggest cigarette brands).
The elongated leather-topped table in the boardroom is pear wood and black leather chairs encircle it. Two real plants in the boardroom as well as six packs of cigarettes and, for some strange reason, a bronze bust of Beethoven wearing a scarf done in 1891.
Though there's a definite sense of formality here, I pick up a tell-tell sign of informality when Almgren takes me up to the roof deck and I see the gas barbecue. Wow, what I great place to grill a few steaks, have a cold beer and watch the sun set over the lake.
Sika Finanz AG
Leaving Zug brings you immediately into the neighboring town/village of Baar and on the main drag through town I find the white four-story head office of Sika Finanz, a company with interests in construction, chemicals and elastic adhesives. Revenues in 1995 were CHf 1.3 billion, profit CHf 56 million. The company's name sits atop both sides of the office structure.
It's a real class act here as Brigetti Nyers, secretary to CEO Hans Peter Ming, refuses to talk to me on the phone and has the receptionist relay the following terse message to me: "everybody's busy".
Datwyler Holding AG
I'm in Altdorf, one of those out of the way places hard to get to and besides being home to Swiss hero William Tell (the guy who shot apples off peoples heads with arrows), it's home to Datwyler Holding. Revenues in 1995 were US$ 662 million, profit US$ 26 million.
Founded in Altdorf in 1915 by Adolf Datwyler (1883-1958), the company manufactures cables and precision steel tubes (it's the world's largest manufacturer of high precision pneumatic spring cylinders for the automobile, machine and furniture industries). Datwyler also manufactures industrial components and pharmaceutical packaging (it's the world's second largest manufacturer of rubber parts for pharmaceutical packaging systems and medical devices). How do I know what they do? When entering the three-story head office building you're greeted by five large glass cylinders with the company's various products displayed inside. Waiting in the lobby I sit on these ugly white chairs with orange cushions surrounding circular white Formica tables which all but confirms my guess the building was built in the late 1950's early 1960's. I do note the bike racks outside. There's a bronze bust of a man in the lobby, though there's no name on the bust I'm almost certain it's Adolf Datwyler the founder.
Actually, the head office sits on the top floor of a three-story structure, which is connected to a large plant located in the rear. Over 700 employees work here with 12 working in the offices of the holding company.
Bruno Frei, corporate controlling, gives me a warm welcome and answers questions. Employees have use of two tennis courts, a gym with basketball court and a swimming pool.
CEO Roland Zimmerli has fresh flowers in his office along with two plants, pictures of his wife, eight pipes and three pictures of yachts (he likes to sail).
How far to the nearest airport? Frei know the exact distance: 99.8 kilometers to Zurich airport (60 miles) and says it take him an hour to drive it.
I like to ask people their commute time and Frei gives me an answer never heard before. His commute time is 15 minutes; it's a five-minute walk to the gondola and then it's a 10-minute ride up. Altdorf lies in a picturesque valley with the Alps looming in the immediate background and Frei lives atop one of the small mountains encircling the valley. Your boss has probably heard all those familiar excuses for being late such as the train, bus, cab, or car broke down but how about Frei's excuse; the gondola broke down.
Schindler Holding AG
Lucerne's a beautiful city (metropolitan population 180,000) with a well-preserved old town. Riding ten miles out of town I come to Hergiswil, a village which is suppose to contain the head office of Schindler Holding AG, the world's second largest elevator company (after Otis) and the world's largest manufacturer of escalators. There is a small Schindler building but the executives are another half-dozen miles away in Ebikon, where the company has a plant and research center. Who tells me this? Daniel Baechtold, corporate communication manager, who just happened to be visiting the Hergiswil office. He agrees to meet me the next morning in Ebikon.
Just like I was told, it isn't hard finding Schindler's complex because there's a tall building on the site with the company's name running down its sides which sticks out from everything else in the area (Ebikon with a population of 5,000 isn't exactly a hotbed of buildings). The tall thin Schindler structure is used for testing elevators.
Founded back in 1874, a Schindler family member stills runs the company (CEO Alfred Schindler). Revenues in 1995 were CHf 4.7 billion, profit 78 million. About 200 employees work in the head office, an eight-story building built in 1986.
As expected the building features several of the company's latest high-tech elevators. In normal elevators you press a button either signaling you want to go up or down, wait for he elevator to arrive, enter, then, press the button of the floor you want. . Here, before the elevator arrives, you press the floor button you wish to be taken to. This allows the elevator's computers to compute which elevator will get you there the in the most efficient manner. What's the downside to this? Once you get in the elevator you can't change your mind where you're going because there aren't any buttons to push. I mention visiting competitor KONE in Finland and, how old elevators serviced their graffiti-clad head office. One would think it would be a showplace to model their newest products.
I don't get to see CEO Alfred Schindler's top floor computerless office but do see the boardroom and oval-shaped table. I always ask how far it is to the city center. When I say city center to Baechtold, he answers it's fifteen minutes by car--meaning downtown Lucerne.
World Chess Federation
I'm sure glad I was passing through Lucerne anyway because I'd be really upset to have made a special trip here to see the offices of the World Chess Federation. Why? Because they ain't here. Several miles from the city center up a steep grade in a predominately residential area I find the address. It's some kind of church school. I wander the empty halls and find a man who doesn't speak English. The man takes me to a woman who does. I tell her this is where the World Chess Federation is supposed to have their offices. She says they moved several years ago and isn't sure but thinks it was to Rome. Jeez, so much for seeing Bobby Fisher memorabilia.
I've gone from the northeast part of Switzerland (predominately German-speaking) and am now in the southwest part of Switzerland ((predominately French speaking). Vevey, a beautiful little town of 16,000 nestled along the banks of Lake Geneva, lies 15 miles east of Lausanne and 45 miles east of Geneva. Montreux, the ritzy lakefront town lies a few miles east of Vevey (Switzerland's miniature version of the French Riveria). Besides being the place where actor Charles Chapin took up residence, Vevey has another claim to fame: home base to Nestle, one of the world's largest food companies.
As expected, in a small town like this it isn't tough to find Nestle's HQ. Occupying prime lakefront frontage, I immediately spot the company's name atop the sides of its long "I"-shaped, seven-story building. A giant Swiss flag flaps in the breeze atop a flagpole on the building.
Nestle, with revenues of US$48.7 billion and over 220,000 employees, gets to call itself the world's largest food company. Familiar names and products includes Carnation, Stouffers dinners, Nescafe, Nestea, Lion, Kit Kat, Hills Bros., MJB coffee, Friskies cat food, yogurts, Perrier, Arrowhead, Poland Springs, Maggi instant noodles and Alcon eye drops.
Boy, I'm impressed! I've barely set foot inside the front door before receptionist Eleoua Wira-Milanizadeh greets me by name. She has a copy of the advance letter and news clippings I sent a month earlier to the CEO sitting on her desk. I'm told I look skinnier then in the newspaper clippings (jeez, how can that be after pigging out for weeks on yummy Austrian pastries and food).
I end up spending half the day visiting Nestle and it's a fun visit thanks to Francois-Xavier Perroud, vice president-corporate communications and Hans-Joerg Renk, assistant vice president-press and information office.
From an airplane Nestle's five-story headquarters looks like one building shaped like the letter "H". Actually, it's two separate buildings. The first, with 140,000 square feet was built in 1960 and is shaped like the letter "T". Considering its age and having the definite 1960's-look to it---the building has aged well, which coming from me is quite a compliment (I normally disdain buildings with the ugly 1960's-look). The new building, built in 1990, contains 116,000 square feet. Over 1,500 employees work here. Besides having 1,024 parking spots I note the COVERED parking for those employees who commute by bicycle.
I imagine the company's cafeteria will easily make my final listing of 10 best company cafeterias. Considering the number of meals they have to mass prepare with over 1,500 employees, the food is awesome. My steak and fries, black root, red cabbage and carrot juice is tasty. So are my two desserts: mousse with pear and chocolate ice cream with cream in the middle. Renk also has me try a new Nestle yogurt, which is supposed to be eatable to those who have problems digesting milk. It's good.
Why is the company located in Vevey? This is where Henri Nestle (1814-1890) founded the company in 1867. Have you ever noticed the company's logo? I hadn't. It's a bird's nest with several birds in it. How did they come up with the logo? Nestle in German means "little nest".
The company has an impressive art collection. Nestle's criteria for selecting art? It's limited to contemporary Swiss artists and foreign artists who have lived in Switzerland or had an exhibit in Switzerland. Lots of impressive works on the grounds and in the buildings including works by Sol Lewitt, Ellsworth Keyy, Alexander Calder, Christo, Jasper Johns, Eduardo Chillida and Luciano Fabro. Two rather strange (more like bizarre) pieces of art are worth pointing out. There's a big expansive piece of green lawn with tall mature trees between the headquarters building and the lakefront. In the middle of this lawn and spaced a few feet apart are five big red brick barrel vaults which form a cube. Done by Per Kirkeby, they look more like giant pizza ovens. The other strange work faces the public sidewalk near the front of the building. At first glance, it looks like an unfinished wall. At second glance, it looks like an unfinished wall. Anyway you look at it this 22 meter long "piece of art" by German artist Ulrich Rueckriem made out of unpolished Westphalian dolomite is nothing but an unfinished wall.
Many companies have company stores at their head offices where employees can buy company products at a discount. Nestle's is the biggest I've seen. How big is it? It's about the size of a 7-11 convenience and there's an amazing selection of products to choose from. Shopping carts are provided. Renk tells me to pick out whatever I want but I decline, mostly because it's too hot outside to lug chocolate on my bike. There's a big selection of L'Oreal cosmetics. Why? Nestle owns 49% of Gesparal, a holding company which controls L'Oreal, a French company.
The boardroom contains an elongated table with leather trim, which seats 17. A 16th century 10-foot by 25-foot reproduction of a world map trimmed in gold leaf hangs on a wall and hogs the limelight in the room. I can't see CEO Helmut Maucher or designated CEO Peter Brabeck-Lemathe's top floor offices due to "they're busy".
The previous occupant of this headquarters site was the Grand Hotel. The company has no formal dress code and has flex work hours. The nearest airport is Geneva's, a 45-minute drive.
Nestle decides to take a picture of me for their in-house employee newsletter (with over 220,000 employees it reaches a lot of people). I'm standing outside the front entrance of the building next to my bike and the photographer is getting ready to snap the picture when he notices something rather unpleasant: I have a large bottle of Evian water strapped on my bike. Ooops, Nestle owns Perrier, Vittel, Poland Springs and Arrowhead. I turn the bottle to its side.
International Olympic Committee
Lausanne, with almost 300,000 people in the metropolitan area, fronts Lake Geneva. It's extremely hilly with most of the town built up on the hillsides. It's down near the lakefront and in the midst of a large city park where I find the offices for the International Olympic Committee.
Offices are in two distinct buildings connected by an enclosed walkway. One is the modern-looking two-story, reflective glass main building built in 1986 and the other is the turn-of-the-century two-story chateau (Villa Mon Repos) which was donated to the organization. Several lifesize sculptures grace the well-kept grounds and from their physiques I deduce they were or are athletes.
I meet with Carlos Montserrat, personnel manager, and Jorge Lopes from the press department. Their business cards contain something seen only two other times: their pictures are on the cards. Would it surprise you if I told you Kodak was one of the other two having their mugs on business cards?
The new building is quite fancy with its two-story atrium lobby lined with white marble and fresh flowers on coffee tables. Visitors can sit on seven gray leather chairs and gaze at 12 colorful paintings hanging on the walls, which show various Olympic events. I also count six small bronze sculptures including one by Auguste Rodin, note the close- circuit camera in the lobby and check out the three overhead television monitor hanging from the ceiling showing Atlanta scenes. It's July and the Olympic games are due to begin in Atlanta in several weeks. From the atrium lobby I can look up to the second floor. There's a bronze bust there and Lopes takes me up for a look. It's Baron Pierre de Courbertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee and who's credited with bringing the Olympics back to life 100 years ago.
Almost 100 people work here. I'm taken to lunch and the food is great though I'm amazed to find out smoking is allowed in the small cafeteria. One would think they would be promoting healthy no-smoking lifestyles here. Hours of work are from 9AM to 12 noon, then 2 PM to 5PM.
The organization's boardroom where it's decided which cities will host the Olympics contains a long table seating 24--with six chairs for translators. English and French are the official languages here.
We head over to the top floor of the chateau to look in Juan Antonio Samaranch's office. Now in his 70's, Samaranch has been IOC President since 1980. His middle office with green carpet and green wallpaper contains a wealth of memorabilia including, 41 medals from Olympic sessions he's attended. There's a TV/VCR, three family pictures, seven paintings on the walls and 13 green chairs. With tall outside trees blocking the way he hasn't much of a view.
Most of the staff like Montserrat and Lopes get a unique perk which comes around every couple years; jetting off to the wherever the winter and summer games are being held. I do get a spiffy momento of my visit; an official Olympic Swatch watch for the 96 summer games.
Publicitas Holding SA
The receptionist at Publicitas isn't very receptive. It's an ugly looking four-story building built in the 1950's located in Lausanne's downtown area. Before entering the main part of the building one enters a very small lobby area (three feet wide and fifteen feet long) furnished with three black vinyl chairs and has to deal with a receptionist seating in a glass enclosed room to the side. She slides open her window and I ask if she speaks English. She answers in English and in a not very friendly manner says, "we speak French". The rude woman then proceeds to close the sliding window in my face. Not letting this twit deter me I eventually get to meet with; Jean-Denis Briod, secretary-general and director.
On the outside of the building there's a sign which reads: Publicitas-Direction Generale, General Direktion, Direzione Generale which takes in three of Switzerland's four official languages: German, French and Italian. The fourth, Romansh, is a Swiss dialect spoken in a very small corner of Switzerland. NOTE* Of Switzerland's four languages, 64% of the populations speaks German, 19% French, 8% Italian, 1% Romansh, and others 8%.
Publicitas, founded 106 years ago, sells advertising space for the print media (newspapers, magazines). Briod says this type of business is unusual in the USA but is big in several European countries.
Just like the outsides of the building the insides isn't anything worth noting. About 40 people work in the corporate offices. Revenues in 1995 were CHf 1.8 billion, profit CHf 52 million. I can't see CEO Jean-Jaques Zaugg's second corner office because "he's in".
About two miles from downtown Lausanne and across the street from one of their plants lies Bobst's small five-story reflective glass offices. Bobst, with 1995 revenues of CHf 1,1 billion, profit CHf 68 million, is the world's largest producer of packaging machines. I'm out of luck here as I'm told to come back tomorrow and see Jaques Muggli from the personnel department. No can do as I leave town early the next morning for Geneva.
On the road in Geneva
I'm disappointed in Geneva (metropolitan population 440,000). It's not the posh international spot I was expecting. Many of its buildings were built in the 1950's and are definitely dated and rundown. With over 28,000 civil servants working for governmental organizations like the U.N., World Health Organization (WHO), and the International Labor Organization (ILO) I was expecting the place to have a real international feel. Though its lakefront location is impressive, Geneva scores only a 5 on my 1-10 scale.
I spent several nights at the Noga Geneva Hilton Hotel and it scored two thumbs up in my book. Why? I requested a non-smoking room. When one does that here you sign a form saying you'll refrain from smoking in the room. The form goes on to say you'll pay a CHf 250 fine if found in violation. It's amazing how many times I've stayed in a designated "non-smoking" room only to find cigarette butts left on the balcony or the stale smell of tobacco from someone having smoked in the room. Smokers are unbelievably inconsiderate.
SGS Holding SA
Boy, this place looks like it's trapped in a time warp. I'm in the dumpy lobby of SGS (Societe Generale de Surveillance), the world's largest inspection, testing and verification company. From the outside the grand-looking turn-of-the-century, five-story building could pass for a bank's head office. The inside is a different story. The small tacky-looking lobby with cheap wood paneling has a definite 1950's look to it. The two leather chairs and sofa have seen better days and the reception sits at an awkward position facing away from visitors entering.
Anne-Catherine Werner from corporate communications comes to the lobby and is hesitant about answering my questions. She agrees to go through the questions but changes her mind after several minutes. Werner says the company keeps a very low profile. Aw jeez. What makes this 150 year-old company so interesting is the Chairman being a woman. Elizabeth Salina Amorini took over the company from her father and it would have been neat to see her office. Werner's so paranoid about giving out information she won't even tell me what floor Amorini's on.
About 350 people work here. Located in downtown Geneva it's a listed/historic building.
SGS does business in over 140 countries. Founded in 1875 the company started out verifying grain shipments. Now, the company is in a whole range of industries such as agriculture, petroleum, petrochemicals, industrial equipment, consumer goods, healthcare, and insurance. For example, if one company ships another company a load of fertilizer, SGS verifies the weight and quality of the shipment. How big a business is this? Big enough for SGS to have over 35,000 employees and 1995 revenues of CHf 2.6 billion.
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), is a worldwide federation of national standards bodies from over 100 countries, one for each country. The ISO is a non-governmental organization established in 1947. So, you think you've caught me in a mistake when I use ISO in the short form instead of IOS. Shouldn't the acronym be "IOS"? Yes, if it were an acronym--which it isn't. "ISO" is a word, derived from the Greek isos, meaning "equal". As an organization brochure explains "From "equal" via "uniform" to "standard", the conceptual path followed in selecting "ISO" as the name of the organization is easy to follow." Yeah but, the REAL reason for the name is its advantage of being valid in each of the organization's three official languages--English, French and Russian. The acronym "IOS" would not correspond to the official title of the organization in French---Organisation Internationale de normalisation.
Head offices since 1953 have been in an ugly six-story building built in 1953 by the city of Geneva. It's located several miles from downtown but in the same area where the U.N and other organizations have many buildings. The name of the organization on the front door is in three languages; French, English and Russian, at least I think it's Russian.
Francine Forrest, executive secretary to the top man, Dr. Lawrence Eicher-secretary-general, gives me a warm reception. Forrest is perplexed why the ISO is on my list of companies/organizations to visit. I tell her I was intrigued as to whether they'd all have standardized offices.
So, what has this organization done to improve the world we live in? Standards are documented agreements containing technical specifications. Thanks to the ISO we have standardized film speed code throughout the world. Ditto for screw threads, freight containers, wire ropes used on oilrigs, fishing vessels and mines. Format of credit cards, phone cards and "smart" cards is derived from an ISO international standardization.
I find it interesting when Forrest says there's an international standard for paper size "A-4" used around the world except for one country; the USA. We use eight and a half by 11 instead of the standard eight and a half by 12.
Very plain offices and furnishings for the 180 employees here including three small fake trees in the lobby. There's no cafeteria but a break room. The wood paneled boardroom seats 18 around the table in blue chairs. Eicher's middle office with parquet floor contains a computer, two family pictures and a Greek tablet, which Forrest says is 4,000 years old (I note it isn't the standard A-4 size). Eicher's business cards are in English on one side and French on the other.
Unbelievable!, watchmaker Patek Philippe has been located on the same site since 1854 and the one day I pick to drop in finds them moving. It's similar to many of the churches and monuments I've been visiting in Europe: many are hundreds and hundreds of years old and they elect to close down and do renovations the one time I ride through.
Founded in 1845 by Antoine de Patek (Polish) and Andrien Philippe (French), the company's flagship shop and head office have been located on the same lakefront six-story building since 1854. The left bank of Lake Geneva contains the ritzy shopping area, which is surprisingly drab. In a several block section, are some of the world's most exclusive shops and boutiques (Hermes, Chanel and Harry Winston to name a few) but there're no tree lined streets or fancy marbled sidewalks. As with Patek Philippe's, every other lakefront building has large advertisement names atop their buildings. Matter of fact, Philippe has it's name in huge letters on top the building and, on the sides of the fifth floor AND second floor.
The company's flagship store occupies the ground floor so making my way past movers loading boxes onto trucks in the street I bound up the stairs to the second floor reception area. Lots of English magazines lying around the coffee table including Vogue, Business Week, Newsweek, Country Life, Asian Business, Woman's Journal and Advertising Age. First item of business is to check the watch of the receptionist. Hmm, she isn't wearing a watch. Sylvie Dricourt, a secretary, steps out and says no one has time to meet with me because they're in the middle of a move. Checking Dricourt's wrist and noticing she isn't wearing a watch let alone a Patek Philippe. "How come neither one of you is wearing a Patek Philippe?", I ask. "We can't afford them", they both answer.
The flagship store will remain on the ground floor, but the offices along with the watchmakers will be moving six miles away to a new build housing 600 employees.
Not knowing much about watches I stop in the flagship store and end up talking with Dominique Bernaz, store manager, who graciously takes time out to show me several watches. One of the timepieces I'm handed is a pocket watch called the Calibre 89. It takes five years to complete this dandy little time keep, which consists of 1,728 parts and 33 functions. This 18 karat gold, enamel painted keeper of time which grand strike, minute-repeater, perpetual calendar, moon phases and split seconds chronograph goes for a cool 966,000 Swiss francs. So, one would think if I were to whip out 966,000 Swiss francs on the counter I could walk out with my new watch--right? Wrong. There's a 30- day waiting period for these watches, as they have to be run through a battery of checks again before being handed over to the owners. What makes Patek Philippe watches so expensive? Bernaz says it's the craftsmanship and the limited number of watches produced. For example, he says Rolex produces 800,000 watches a year while Patek Philippe only 20,000. Bernaz hands me another Patek Philippe watch, this platinum timepiece that never needs winding and gives you the date and year will set you back 585,000 Swiss francs. Speaking of watches, I check out what Bernaz is wearing and sure enough, it's a Patek Philippe. "Do employees get a discount?" I ask. Bernaz says no because it would dilute the product.
The next morning I unexpectedly get a call in my hotel room from Jasmina Steele, communications manager for Patek Philippe. She called to apologize for not being able to meet with my yesterday and hoped I understood what a difficult time it was with this big move going on.
Piaget Watch Company SA
The address I have for Piaget Watch Company initially takes me a building in a so-so mixed-use (apartments, small businesses and warehouse) area several miles from downtown Geneva. Turns out the company moved a few months ago to another part of town so, it's off I go. Hey, their new digs look pretty spiffy: it's a turn-of-the-century former cigarette factory.
The lobby contains two fake trees, fresh flowers in a bowl, one black leather chair, one black leather sofa and nary a clock or watch in sight. Charris Yadigaroglou, head of communications, says Piaget shares the building with one of its sister watches; Baume & Mercier, both owned by Richemont Holdings, whom I visited earlier in Zug.
The company leases the white four-story historic building which Yadigaroglou points out still has the name of the cigarette company embedded on the outside top of the building. Why is the name "E.D. Laurens" still found on the structure? Keeping the name on the building was one of the conditions on leasing the place.
Piaget occupies one and a half floors and has around 50 employees here. Founded in 1874 by Georges Piaget, the current president is also a Piaget. The 60-something year old Yves Piaget is the fourth generation with the company.
Nothing special about managing director Francis Gouten's second floor, computerless middle office containing several pictures of family.
As mentioned earlier I know nothing about watches and took a guess as to how much the Piaget watch Yadigaroglou was wearing cost. I said $1,000. Yadigaroglou looked offended as he says the watch goes for 13,000 Swiss francs. Piaget doesn't make steel watches only gold and platinum. Yadigaroglou fesses up and says employees get a 50% discount to purchase one watch a year.
On the road in Bern
Ascom Holding AG
About a mile from downtown Bern, Switzerland's capital (metropolitan population 329,000), lies the three building headquarters of Ascom, a manufacturer of telecommunication equipment with 1995 revenues of CHF 3 billion. I know the company makes such things as remote controls for televisions because I've had several of them in my hotel rooms.
Before entering the new (1991) modernistic six-story head office, one passes by two late-19th century listed (historic) buildings. Purchased by the company in 1980 the small 3-story structures are typical examples of early Bernese suburban architecture. Actually, Hasler, a predecessor company, purchased the buildings. Ascom was founded 10 years ago as a result of a merger between Autophon and Hasler & Zellweger.
I get a lousy reception from Dr. Andre Simmen, First Vice President and head of corporate communications who acts uninterested and just goes through the motions. The words "stick in the mud" and "bad communicator" come to mind.
About 200 employees work here in the 125,000 square foot building. I can't see CEO Hans-Ulrich Schroeder's second floor corner office because "he's busy". For that matter, Simmen shows me nothing but the front door after 10 quick minutes.
Out front of one of the listed buildings there's a water spigot flowing with water. Coming through Austria and parts of Switzerland most of the small villages and towns have continuous water troughs throughout the town for drinking water. It's been great filling up my water bottles with the tasty water. So, I get out my water bottle and fill'er up. After taking several big swigs I notice there's a small plaque on the front of the fountain with words in German. I ask a passing employee what it means. He tells me it says "this is not drinking water". Well, it figures. Ascom has a problem communicating. Putting the universal red circle with a cross through it would seem to be the better solution.
Galencia Holding AG
Riding half-a-dozen miles from downtown Bern brings me to a blah looking seven story building housing the offices of Galencia Holding, a wholesale pharmaceutical distributor with 53% of the Swiss market.
The company's name is in big letters atop the building, which was built in 1965 and is company-owned. Galencia occupies only the sixth floor and has 12 employees here. I meet with Irene Gall, company secretary (she's an executive--not a secretary) who says the company is named after Galien, the father of pharmaceutical science. I noticed there was a bust of a woman in the lobby and Gall says its Hygieia from Greek mythology. Also in the lobby were displays of old pharmacy jars from the early 1900's.
There's no company cafeteria, but there's a public restaurant in the building. I can't see CEO Etienne Jornod's corner office because "he's in". Revenues in 1995 were 13 billion Swiss francs.
Merkur Holding AG
Not too far from Galencia's offices is the old-looking seven-story head office of Merkur Holding. I've been seeing the company's kiosks all over Switzerland. The company operates 1,325 and supplies 4,600 others with such items as newspapers, magazines, candy and cigarettes plus, operates food and snack vending machines. Merkur, with 1995 revenues of 2.9 billion Swiss francs, also is Europe's largest supplier of bedding and bed systems through its Slumberland Group subsidiary.
There's a impressive tall cactus in the lobby but the tired-looking lobby is in need of being spruced up. Try as she could, receptionist Doris Brunner can't find anyone to meet with me. It seems press chief Hanspeter Staub "hasn't time" for me as well as the several other people Brunner contacts. My letter to CEO Fritz Frohofer had been referred to Staub. I do find out from the helpful Brunner that the building was built in 1964 and 210 people work here.
Getting to Biel, Switzerland involves making a side trip from my Bern to Basel route but what the heck, it's home to SMH, the world's largest manufacturer of watches.
I'm expecting to find a high-profile building with the company's name atop in big letters in this small town but it turns out to be the opposite. Located a half-mile from downtown the six-story, plain, unmarked structure has the definite 1970's look to it and is shrouded by tall trees on the grounds. A public parking lot sits next to the building and directly across the lot (a shotput away) there's a small park, which includes an archery range.
Entering the building I pass a giant vase filled with fresh flowers and spot a six foot tall Swatch watch hanging on a wall as I make my way to the two receptionists. Also in the lobby is a Rado watch display and a Longines time flashing display clock. SMH, manufactures 90% of its products in Switzerland but sells 95% of the goods abroad. Brands include Hamilton, Swatch, Rado, Tissot, Omega, Blancpain, Longines and Mido. What do the letters SMH stand for? Societe de Microelectronique & d' Horlogerie.
The receptionists tell me I picked the worst possible day to show up because the annual meeting is today. I leave disappointed.
A week after making my way up to Basel I decide to catch a train back to SMH for another visit. Why? As I mentioned it's the world's largest watchmaker (1995 revenues US$2.3 billion) plus I read stories about CEO Nicolas Hayek being quite a character.
Well, it turns out my returning wasn't worth enduring the hour and a half train ride and rain. Beatrice Howald, Responsible of Press Office (that's what it reads on her business card, which also means she's head of the press department), gives me one of those "I'm busy but I'll give you 10 minutes" greetings and just go through the motions.
My questions are answered sitting in the small no-frill cafeteria located on the top floor. About 100 people work here. I can't see CEO Hayek's office due to "security reasons" which Howald says is silly because "Hayek has meetings with press in his office all the time". Looks like I don't get to check out what kind of watch Hayek wears. Howald says Hayek regularly wears FOUR watches at once including the first Swatch watch to come off the assembly line.
The nearest airport is either Zurich or Geneva, both an hour and a half away. I can tell Howald isn't a savy marketing person or else she would have noticed the Swiss Army watch I was wearing and offered me one of their watches to wear. Then again, she was probably too busy looking at her own watch to see how much of her time I was taking. I noticed she's wearing the Edwin Moses Swatch watch.