On the road in Basel
Basel (metropolitan population 400,000) gets the call as my favorite Swiss city. Per capita income, it's Switzerland's wealthiest city. Its large well-preserved old town area is a beaut and so is its location, fronting the mighty Rhine River. Baselís border location, where Switzerland/Germany and France meet, allows you to ride several miles in one direction through the beautiful hilly French countrysides and riding several miles in another direction will take you through beautiful German countrysides. Best of all, for some unexplainable reason, tour buses don't come through here unlike the rest of Switzerland.
Danzas Holding, the world's third largest transport company and largest in Europe, occupies a five-story building a half-mile from Basel's city center. It's not a very impressive site. Why? There's graffiti on the walls outside the entrance and it looks like it's been there a while. Entering the place you're greeted by a colorful mosaic pattern of small tiles on a wall and a receptionist sitting in a glass enclosed booth. I count six real plants, eight black leather chairs in the lobby along with a small stand alone glass display case filled with video's and discs on something titled "The corporate film". The way it's displayed makes it look as though they're for sale. Who's gonna buy it? Employees? Customers? The waiting area in the lobby also contains three stain glass windows with colorful designs.
Daniell Koch, secretary to CEO Pete Wagner comes down to the lobby and arranges for Markus Roth, Assistant CEO-Vice President, to meet with me. Founded in 1815, Danzas with over 16,00 employees and 1995 sales of 6.1 billion Swiss francs, offers airfreight, ocean freight, customs transport and freight forwarding services. The company's name is atop the structure and Danzas has been in this building since 1968 with about 140 employees working here. It's a mostly residential area with housing on several sides of the corner building. Matter of fact, the reason the company sits on this particular plot of land has to do with the fact it's the former site of a villa owned by Mr. Danzas, who founded the company in 1815.
I ask Roth if they have any fitness facilities on the premises and he answers there's a small weight room with rowing equipment. "Any showers facilities?", I ask. Roth isn't sure but answers, "the bomb shelter probably has some". "Bomb shelter!, why do you have a bomb shelter?", is my response. Roth says it's mandatory in Switzerland for all buildings to have one. "Can I see it?", is my next question. He answers, "sure" and it's down into the bowels of the building we go. Sure enough opening a massive steel door leads into a large self-contained room, though the shower facilities looks like they've never been used (since 1968). Hmm, looking around the room I thought for sure there'd be a huge stash of Swiss chocolate.
I can't see CEO Peter Wagner's office because "he's busy".
Baloise Holding, an insurance company with 1994 premium income of 6.8 billion Swiss francs and 9,500 total employees, occupies several buildings in a cluster near the downtown area of Basel including a 10-story marble-clad structure which looks new and a nine-story edifice looking about 20 years old. Via the lobby phone I learn from the secretary to CEO Gianfranco Balestra, my contact person is Dr. Faesch, head of corporate communications. Talking to Ann Kocher, secretary to Faesch, she informs me Dr. Faesch won't be back for 10 days. I ask if someone else would have a few minutes to meet with me and Kocher answers "no". I explain to Kocher I'm only here for one more day and she answers back "that's your problem".
Roche Holding AG
My visit to Roche Holding, one of Europe's biggest pharmaceutical companies with 1995 revenues of 15 billion Swiss francs, turns out to be one of those times where I spend the majority of the day at one company. This is thanks to the extensive and friendly reception bestowed upon me by Max Gurtner, Head Corporate Public Communication and Investor Relations, and, Peter Wullschleger, also from the corporate communications department.
Fritz Hoffman (1868-1920) founded Roche Holding in Basel back in 1896. Most people know the company as F. Hoffman-La Roche, which I assumed the La Roche part meant there was a Mr. La Roche. Nope. Hoffman's wife name was Adele La Roche.
Headquarters is in a huge complex of buildings (2.9 million square feet of office/research/plant space) near the Rhine River with a short 10-minute walk to downtown Basel. We're talking about dozens of buildings of varying age in various shapes and sizes. I wrongly assumed the tallest building on the site, an 18-story edifice built in 1960, would house the executives. It turns out the executives hang their hats in a non-descript, three-story riverfront building built in 1936. Though partially hidden by mature trees and other buildings, the Otto R. Salvisberg-designed structure (a listed/historic building) is quite famous in the architecture world. Why? due mostly to the sweeping spiral staircase near the entrance, which 60 years later still manages to elicit an "oh wow" out of people seeing it for the first time, including me.
Over 7,000 employees work in this big complex with 250 of those in the head office building. I'm surprised to learn there's only one cafeteria for all these employees but it's a big one and the food is great after personally sampling some of the menu items. Near the cafeteria building we go check out the large indoor swimming pool.
Nothing special about the oval-shaped table in the boardroom with the 13 olive colored chairs. CEO Fritz Gerber sits in a corner office on the second floor of the riverfront building but hasn't a very good view of anything thanks to tall trees outside.
The nearest freeway lies 500 meters away or as Gurtner answers "15 seconds away". Nearest airport is Basel's Euro Airport, a half-hour drive. Roche shares corporate aircraft.
An interesting segment of Roche's business is manufacturing fragrances and flavors. If letís say, Calvin Klein, Tiffany's or Hugo Boss want a new fragrance, Roche does all the work in coming up with potential winning scent.
Sandoz AG and Ciba-Geigy AG
Yes I know Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy are suppose to be merging but I'm visiting them both because I've found out the hard way mergers don't always go through. Several times in the past I've bypassed visiting companies because they were being merged or bought out. Later on the deals didn't go through.
When merged, Sandoz with sales of 15 billion Swiss francs and Ciba-Geigy with 20.7 billion in Swiss francs, will become the world's biggest agro-chemicals group and the world's second biggest pharmaceuticals company after London's Glaxo-Wellcome.
It's amazing how close the headquarters of these two rival behemoths lie from each other. From Sandoz's large riverfront headquarters/plant/research complex along the Rhine one crosses the river via a two-minute walk across a bridge and boom, you're at Ciba-Geigy's large riverfront headquarters/plant/research complex.
First stop: Sandoz, where I talk to the secretary to Managing Director Dr. M. Moret, who says it's a bad time to visit with so many things going on do to the pending merger. She says they should receive final approval in September (several months away) when the European Commission makes its ruling. Ah-ha! I tell her that's my point for visiting because there's always the chance the merger won't go through. Moret's secretary says to check with Ciba-Geigy because the new name of the merged company will be called Novartis and much of the work is being done over there.
I'm now across the river at Ciba-Geigy's headquarters talking to Ursilla Schmidt, secretary to Professor Walter von Wartbudg, who's head of communications for Ciba-Geigy. Schmidt says her boss is in meetings. I try for several days and never get to connect with him. By chance I learn the CEO of Ciba-Geigy, A. Krauer, has his office several miles away in a big brown four-story building from the 1920's located directly across the street from the German train station. Basel is a unique city in that there's a separate German, French and Swiss train station. I head over there and talk to Heidi Muri, secretary to Krauer, who refers me back to Wartbudg. A definite strike out at both companies for me.
Swiss Bank Corporation
It's a pretty impressive looking head office for Swiss Bank Corporation, in terms of assets (212 billion Swiss francs) the third biggest bank in Switzerland. The five-story tall brown trim building looks to have been built in the 1980's and takes up half a block. Out front, the Swiss Bank Corporation sign is in four languages. There's also a four-story tall black metal sculpture of a man out front. It's very unique with one arm moving up and down with a hammer.
The main lobby entrance contains a large cactus garden. The helpful security guard/receptionist makes several phone calls trying to track down who ended up with my advance material. No luck, which included checking with new CEO Marcel Ospel's secretary. I get sent across the street to a building housing the company's public relations department and talk with Susanne Amacher. She says she'll check into finding my letter and get someone to meet with me tomorrow. It's now Thursday afternoon and Friday is my last day in town with Amacher mentioning she won't be in on Friday but will leave a message at my hotel.
Arriving back at the hotel later in the day there's a package for me. It's from Amacher. There's also a message. The message reads: "I feel sorry, but we can't make an appointment with our CEO, I wish you the best". What the heck is she talking about? I never mentioned wanting to meet with the CEO, I just wanted to meet with someone (even Amacher) who could answer my questions. Then it's like adding insult to injury by thinking enclosing a box of traditional Basel gingerbread cookies will appease this guy traveling around on a bicycle. Definitely makes my list of tacky tactics.
Just Passing Through
Keramik Holdings AG
Passed through Laufen, Switzerland on a Saturday and after seeing Keramik's Holdings blah looking five-story, off-white with brown aluminum trim head office I decided it wasn't worth waiting around until Monday. Looks like it was built in the 1970's early 1980's and the company's name is atop the building. Downtown Laufen is about a half-mile away. Small town Laufen isn't exactly a wild and happening spot. Within six feet of the rear of Keramik's building are four grazing sheep in a wire fenced in area.
Keramik, with revenues in 1995 of 888 million Swiss francs, manufactures and distributes ceramic products including wall and floor tiles, sanitaryware, bricks and roof tiles to tableware.
This must be a stop for tour buses because across the company parking lot is a new two-story brick building and atop the building in English is the sign "Laufen Info Center". P peering through the windows I see all kinds of ceramic products on display.
Biber Holding AG
Showed up in the town of Biberist to visit Biber Holding and found my way to a very small two-story brown building (size of a doublewide trailer) near the railroad tracks. Next door is a monster-size company plant making coated wood-free papers. The two secretaries, who look to be the only two in the place, say there aren't many people here to begin with and all the executives are out. Decide it isn't worth coming back tomorrow especially when the company isn't very big (in terms of revenue 673 million Swiss francs) and going through tough times (loss in 1995 323 million Swiss francs).
While waiting in the lobby of Scintilla's five story headquarters near Solothurn I meandered around the four large glass display cases displaying power tools from 1930's onward. I knew Scintilla manufactured power tools but why do most of them have the name Robert Bosch on them?
Peter Mueller, finance director, comes in the waiting area and makes it obvious I'm taking up his valuable time. He isn't familiar with what I'm doing and after explaining, he seems even more perturbed that he has to spend time with me. I ask why the tools have the Robert Bosch name. Mueller says the Stuttgart, Germany based company owns 85% of Scintilla. "Oh, you're just a subsidiary of Robert Bosch who I'll be visiting later in Germany. Heck, I'm really not interested in visiting your company then". Mueller seems happy to hear that and immediately bids me adios.
About 25 miles northwest west of Zurich lies the city of Baden, home to Motor-Columbus. About a mile from town's well-preserved medieval city center and across the street from a small park is where I find Motor-Columbus's headquarters. Located in a residential area, it looks like in its former life to have been a grand villa from the early 1900's. It's Saturday morning and the large five-story structure must have over 200 windows, each shuttered up. There's no name on the building only a small sign stuck in the grass out front reading "Motor Columbus AG" The strangest part are the five small trailers parked in a rear parking lot with people living inside. I decide it's not worth waiting until Monday to visit the company and head to Zurich.
On the road in Zurich
Zurich, with almost a million people in its metropolitan area, gets the nod as Switzerland's biggest city. It's not a city with flashy buildings and it rained most of the week but, what makes it stand out for me is the run-in I had with the police. In my year and a half in Europe (15 countries so far) it's my first encounter with police. Here's what happened: From downtown Zurich to the airport it's about 10 miles. I rode out to the airport (where one of the hotels I stayed at was located). Making my way back to downtown Zurich I retraced the route I rode to the airport only to find one of the roads was one-way. I got lost trying to find the one-way road going the other way. I took a wrong turn onto road used by trolleys and frustrated, made a quick U-turn and rounded a street corner to get ahead of traffic coming up behind. Next thing I know I get pulled over by two Zurich police officers. Neither speaks English. Actually, the younger of the two speaks a few words. The younger was probably in his 30's and the other in his 50's. I was told I rode through TWO red lights. In America, one can turn right on a red light. I don't even know where they came up with the other red light but, if they had been watching me it would be obvious to even the village idiot that here was a guy riding a bicycle with heavy laden panniers who was obviously lost. I pull out my California driver's license, hand it over to the young officer who says to his partner, "American" and they both nod their heads as if that explains everything. So, how do these officers treat a visitor to their land? I'm told it's a 75 Swiss franc fine and it's payable NOW. "Excuse me!, I have to pay it now?" I ask incredulously. I'm from San Diego, which is next to the Mexico border and I feel like I'm in one of those stories you hear about Mexico where the police shake you down. What is my alternate to not paying the fine? I'm told I'll immediately be taken to jail. I fork over the dough and ask for a receipt. I'm a firm believer in that old saying, "what goes around, comes around" which means somewhere in the future these two officers will visit a foreign land and they'll get nailed for making an innocent mistake.
Zurich Insurance Group
I'm visiting Zurich Insurance Group, one of Europe's biggest insurance companies (85 billion Swiss francs in assets) and as expected, they occupy one of downtown Zurich's prime pieces of property; a lakefront site. The four-story elegant structure built in the late 1800's or early turn of the century is very impressive and so are the massive wrought iron entry doors. Walking inside past beautiful marbled walls I climb several steps to the reception desk. No need to announce myself as Jure Milicevic, receptionist/security guard, shows me the note on his desk concerning my pending arrival.
Iris Roth, Head of Media and Information Section, gives me a warm welcome and extensive tour of the place. Actually, the head office consists of five buildings (the other four are located behind this building across public streets) with the tallest of the five being seven stories with the total number of employees in the buildings; 1,000.
In the hallway on the second floor is probably one of the more unusual pieces of art I've seen in any headquarters let alone a conservative insurance company's. Done in 1992 by Nam June Paik, a Korean, it's titled "Fire Piece". What is it? It's over 30 working full-size televisions and a half dozen broken televisions scattered and piled about in a 20-foot area of hallway floor. The working televisions show flashing scenes of fires (MTV-ish style). What really makes this scene so weird is the large stained glass window on the nearby stairway. Obviously done when the building was built, it's of a huge lion standing up with one paw keeping a shield upright, the other slashing outward, plus, it's foot long tongue is sticking out and up. Jeez, talk about your generation gap.
CEO Rolf Hueppi's second floor corner office could pass for a American CEO's office. He's a desktop and laptop computer, three family pictures, two real plants, fresh flowers, one tombstone, four colorful modern paintings hanging on the walls and a spiffy-looking double-sided partners desk which is his own. Looking out his window Hueppi has a great view of the lake right across the street. Hueppi doesn't have to go across the street for a quick dip in the water with the company having an indoor pool and fitness center on the premises.
Founded in 1872, Zurich Insurance's has a traditional boardroom with blue felt covering an oval-shaped table sitting on a parquet floor.
Swiss Life Insurance & Pension
Headquarters lining this side of the lakefront reads like the who's who in Swiss insurance with Zurich Insurance, Swiss Re, Swiss Life and several others lined up in a row. Swiss Life's head office, which was built in 1938, is undergoing renovations so company bigwigs are making do with offices in one of their nearby buildings a block behind.
I meet with Prof. Dr. Moritz Kuhn, company secretary and a director. Though they can't locate my advance material I'm impressed with Kuhn's flexibility in finding time for me. A total of about 1,300 employees work in this six-story building and three others in the area. I'm surprised when Kuhn says they don't have a company cafeteria especially with that many people.
Swiss Life, Switzerland's largest life insurer, is one of Europe's largest mutual companies and the company plans to demutualize in 1997. Founded in 1857, premium income in 1995 was US$ 9 billion and Swiss Life has over $63 billion in assets.
Kuhn's office is two doors down from CEO Manfred Zobl but, I don't get to have a "look/see" due to Zobl's door being closed which Kuhn says means he's working.
One of my questions asked is: "anything unusual about your head office?, such as this used to be a cemetery site or you have a helipad atop the building or I visited Prudential Insurance and Legal & General Insurance in London and they both have ghosts in their head offices". I spend the next five minutes trying to explain what "ghosts" are to Kuhn but without success. This is one of those times where I kick myself for not learning other languages.
Union Bank of Switzerland
Of Switzerland's three largest banks, Union Bank of Switzerland gets bragging rights to calling itself the biggest. The head office sits on Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich's prestigious and high rent, tree-lined shopping and business street.
Built in the 1920's, the five-story building isn't very grand inside. Renovations are going on. Still, there's no grand banking hall, marbled entryways, majestic rotundas or other symbols usually found in bank's main branches. While waiting to meet with Robert Vogler, Assistant Vice President-Corporate Communications, I note the International Herald Tribune newspaper and two Swiss magazines "Swiss Business" and "Bank" on the coffee table.
Vogler can't break down how many employees work in this building but says about 3,000 work in the Zurich area. It isn't possible to see new CEO Mathis Cabiallavetta's top floor, middle office because he hasn't moved into it yet. The boardroom, though undergoing renovations, gets a look from my prying eyes. There's a donut-shaped table and a wall clock Vogler and I guesstimate to be 150 years old.
The treat here is being taken down to the basement to look at safe deposit boxes. How many? Over 19,000 safe deposit boxes covering three levels, it's HUGE! Wouldn't it be cool to have a master key and be able to open any one of these boxes? Imagine the money, jewelry and lord knows what else is stashed in these boxes. Which reminds me, I ask Vogler about the costs and difficulty in opening a safe deposit box here. He says it's very simple. I'm tempted, but the annual fees negate the whim. Vogler mentions the bank not having a huge and grand banking hall might have something to do with discretion. Hmmm, that's true, Imelda Marcos might not like having to do her business in a large public hall.
Julius Baer Holding
Going across the street from Union Bank of Switzerland's offices on prestigious Bahnhofstrasse brings me to Julius Baer Holding's five-story edifice. Founded here in 1890, this private banking company has over 8.3 billion Swiss francs in assets.
Meeting with Rudolf Baer, President & Managing Director, and Dr. Rudolf Ziegler, a company director, I learn this grand turn-of-the-century building was bought in 1924. The previous occupant was the Swiss National Bank. With two other company buildings in the immediate vicinity, the total number of employees working in the three structures totals over 800.
The company has an extensive company art collection consisting of over 1,000 contemporary works by over 400 primarily Swiss artists.
From Baer's second floor corner office he can check out the shoppers walking along the ritzy Bahnhofstrasse. Baer has a desktop computer, one real plant, no family pictures and a half dozen modern paintings hanging on the walls.
I've been by CS Holding's offices twice in the last two days without success and on each of those occasions it was pouring rain. My third visit finds me arriving in (what else) a heavy downpour. It's tough enough finding a secure or reasonably safe place to lock up my bike in a downtown area but, it's doubly tough finding a secure AND covered spot. I end up locking my bike nearby in a covered entryway leading into a small courtyard parking lot.
CS Holding, a global financial services giant with over 412 billion Swiss francs in assets, gets 245 billion of those from it's biggest subsidiary: Credit Suisse, the oldest of Switzerland's Big 3 banks (Union Bank of Switzerland, Swiss Bank Corporation are the others). CS First Boston, the international investment bank, also falls under the CS Holding umbrella.
So here I am getting ready to enter this small unassuming building in downtown Zurich visiting one of the world's biggest financial companies and talk about low-key; there's nary a clue on the outside as to who's inside--not even a small plaque with the company's name. Actually, I can't even enter the place without the guard buzzing me in the door. I count 4 black leather chairs and a fake arrangement of flowers on a coffee table along with a small painting of modern art hanging on a wall in the small lobby.
It's Monday and I found out over the weekend why Peter Walser, Member of Senior Management-Public Relations (Note* that's what it reads on his business card) couldn't meet with me the Thursday or Friday before. That's when the company announced a major restructuring which included the slashing of thousands of jobs. Mentioning this to Walser, he shows me a stack of phone messages six inches thick he's received today from media types which he hasn't had time to call back. It makes me appreciate even more Walser's generosity in finding time to meet with me.
I tell Walser the questions I'm asking are about the company's headquarters and, consider the building where the CEO hangs his hat to be headquarters. Walser says in that case, it's the big five-story U-shaped Credit Suisse bank building directly across the street (within spitting distance of ritzy Bahnhofstrasse) where the 300 employees of CS Holding occupy the 3rd, 4th and 5th floor. Part of the major restructuring announcement included changing the name of CS Holding to Credit Suisse Group.
I can't see CEO Rainer Gut's office or the boardroom because "they're off-limits".
My disappointment must be obvious to Walser because he ends up walking me over to the other building and around several floors so I can "get a feel of the atmosphere". Didn't pick up much atmosphere although, I did get sopping wet from enduring the run back and forth across the street through the drenching rain.
Zuercher Ziegeleien Holding
I find Zuercher Ziegeleien Holding's eight-story red brick head office four miles from downtown Zurich. Though Zuercher Ziegeleien owns the place they only occupy three floors. Bank of America has offices in the building and has the Bank of America name atop the structure. Built in 1986, Sebastian Schobinger, company secretary, says 120 employees work here. The building materials company (bricks, insulation and coating) had revenues in 1995 of 871 million Swiss francs.
Outside the boardroom there's a bronze bust of CEO Jacob Schmidheiny's grandfather who founded the company in 1912. Two framed maps hang on a wall in the boardroom. One, measuring 3 feet by 5 feet, is a map of Switzerland done in 1712. The other is a regional map of Zurich done in 1685.
International Association of Hail Insurers
What has 180 members in 27 countries? If you guessed the International Association of Hail Insurers you guessed right. Offices are in, or I think there're in, an extremely god-awful ugly, six-story building in downtown Zurich built in 1951. Initially on first look, I thought the building was abandoned that's how dumpy it looks.
There seems to be a variety of businesses inside according to the building directory yet, I don't see IAHI's name anywhere. I knock on doors trying to find someone who speaks English. After 30 minutes of wandering around several floors I find a guy who, though he doesn't speak English, seems to understand when I say International Association of Hail Insurers. This encounter leads me to Marianne Stutz. Who is she? She's the sole person running the IAHI. It's actually something she does on the side. Her main job is working for Schweizerische Hagel-Versicherungs-Gesellschaft, which is Switzerland's largest insurance company specializing in insuring crops from hail damage. Company premiums in 1995 were 60 million Swiss francs. Not exactly in the big time which may explain the company's austere and spartan head office. How big a problem is hail to farmers? Stutz shows me framed pictures lining a wall of crop damage done by hail. Wow, whole fields completely obliterated by those falling rascals.
Why or how did the IAHI end up in Switzerland? Stutz says it was probably due to its central location in Europe. Looking through the list of members I note some of the ones from the USA including, Dawson Hail Insurance Company (Fargo, North Dakota), National Crop Insurance Services (Overland Park, Kansas), Farmers Alliance Mutual Insurance Company (Eau Claire, MN), Redlands Insurance Company (Council Bluffs, Iowa) and Agri General Insurance Company (West Des Moines, Iowa).
Zurich isn't a city of tall buildings so Migros-Genossenschafts-Bund's 21-story edifice four miles from downtown sticks out and isn't hard to find. A hotel building (Swissotel) located halfway between downtown and the airport lays claim to being the tallest (somewhere around 30-stories).
Finding the reception area requires making ones way through a small mall located on the first floor of the building. Just about every store in the mall falls under the Migros umbrella. Migros, a cooperative founded in 1925, operates over 570 supermarkets in Switzerland under the Migros name. I pass a branch of Migros Bank (over 30 branches in Switzerland), a branch of Secura, (an insurance company started by Migros to sell car insurance), an Ex Libris store (with over 70 stores in Switzerland itís the largest music and book marketer in German-speaking Switzerland) and, there's a branch of Hotelplan, one of Switzerland's largest travel agencies. Plus, there's the Migros petrol and fuel oil business-who's gas stations I've been seeing around the country. All in all, these various subsidiaries have total revenues over 16 billion Swiss francs, making Migros one of Switzerland's biggest companies.
Finding a safe place to lock up my bike I ask a security guard who contacts his associate who speaks English. Turns out this English-speaking guard lived for a number of years near my hometown of San Diego, California. The guard takes good care of me allowing my bike into secured parking area in the rear.
Waiting in the lobby area to meet with Bruno Ruf from the public relations department I bide the time checking out the wealth of items on display including a full-size 1925 Ford Model T delivery truck used to makes deliveries back in the 1920's. There's a bronze bust of Gottlieb Duttweiler (1888-1962), who along with four friends founded Migros back in 1925. Over a dozen-framed photographs show various historical highlights of the company plus, there's a neat collection of miniature toy trucks and cars (over 60) displayed in glass cases.
Built in 1980, the place is home to over 1,200 employees and I note they aren't superstitious here with a marked 13th floor. The company does, or rather does not have something which definitely makes it unique among the dozens and dozens of supermarket chains visited around the world: Founder Gottlieb Duttweiler considered alcohol and tobacco the arch-enemy of the family. Refusal to sell these products was finally anchored in Migros' Statutes in 1983. Migros however, has no policy banning smoking in the workplace.
Other than his great view, there's nothing special about company president Eugene Hunziker's office. I do make note of his fresh flowers and two plants.
ABB Asea Brown Boveri Ltd.
I'm about halfway between downtown Zurich and the airport and it's pretty obvious why ABB has their head office here. Literally steps away is a train stop where boarding passengers can be deposited at Zurich's airport terminal in five quick minutes.
ABB is big. It's the world's largest electrical engineering group with US$ 33.7 billion in revenues in 1995 and over 200,000 employees. ABB, a 50-50 joint venture between Swedish Asea concern (part of the Wallenberg family empire) and Switzerland's Brown Boveri, leases a five-story red brick building with red trim built in 1988. Behind it there's a small company plant.
Meeting with John Fox, Assistant Vice President-Editorial Services, I'm disappointed when he says they hadn't received my material. The end result means he answers my questions in the lobby and that the extent of the visit. About 130 employees work here and I can't see CEO Percy Barnevik's top floor corner office or the boardroom because "he's in". I've never seen Barnevik in person but I've read quite a few articles on the guy and while in the lobby a man walked in with several others and I thought sure it was Barnevik. The guy could be a double. How many others have Barnevik's distinctive goatee and lanky build? Then I remember my earlier trek through Scandinavia and realized hundreds of men did look like him.
Reisburo Kuoni AG
I find the offices for Reisburo Kuoni, one of Europe's largest travel agencies, several miles from downtown in a semi-industrial area. Built in the 1970's, the seven-story company-owned building won't win any awards for beauty. The company's name is slapped on the exterior. Frau B. Cavegn, the friendly receptionist, says it lights up at night. I meet with Jean-Marc Felix, Assistant Vice President and Head of Corporate Communications and learn about 500 people work here. The company was founded 90 years ago by Alfred Kuoni.
Taking a look in CEO Ricardo Gullotti's blue carpeted, white walled, sixth floor corner office I note the computer, two plants, three modern and one landscape paintings. Why isn't he on the seventh (top floor)? It was an add-on. Company revenues in 1995 were 2.98 billion Swiss francs, profits 45 million Swiss francs.
EMS-Chemie Holding AG
Occupying floors 9 and 10 in a downtown 13-story building I have to ring a doorbell to get someone to greet me because EMS-Chemie hasn't a receptionist. When the receptionist shows up she has my advance letter in hand and greets me with the words "we aren't interested in meeting with you". "Why? I ask. "We don't want publicity" she answers. "This comes from who?" I ask. Turns out, Karl Imhof, Vice Chairman, was the one passing the edict.
Credit Suisse occupies most of the drab building, which looks to have been built in the late 1960's. EMS-Chemie Holding has four main business segments: polymers, chemicals, engineering and power stations. Revenues in 1995 were 856 million Swiss francs.
Elvia Schweizerische Vericherungs-Gesellschaft
I don't know why I even bother talking to the pipe-smoking Urs Nager, Reinsurance Manager, because he makes it clear he couldn't care less in meeting with me. From what I understand he was told to meet with me because no one else was around. For some reason the word "jerk" comes to mind. Unlike the other insurance companies, which are located along the lakefront, Elvia's seven-story head office sits in downtown.
Built in 1980, it's a blah-looking structure with 400 employees working here. There's no company cafeteria and employees pay for parking spots. I'm in and out of his office in seven minutes.
*Weeks later I read an article in a magazine saying Elvira had been acquired by Alliance Group, the big German insurer, back in 1995. If Nager had mentioned that little fact I would have dismissed visiting the company since I'm visiting Alliance later.
Though I've never flown Swissair I'm always reading surveys where they're rated near the top in customer satisfaction. However, judging by the frustrating treatment received from my three visits I find the high ranking hard to believe.
Located next to a freeway and about a quarter mile from the airport, it's raining hard each of the three days I make the trek from downtown Zurich. I don't mind riding in rain, it's the having to discard my wet riding gear and then having to put the cold, wet gear back on again that's unpleasant. My first visit to the five-story, plain looking building built in 1967 seem to be going okay. I enter the lobby and explain to one of the two receptionists behind enclosed glass how I sent a letter here four to six weeks ago addressed to CEO Otto Loepfe and wanted to find out to whom the letter had been referred. I'm told to take a seat while she calls around. I count 16 black leather chairs in the long hallway waiting area plus note the photo booth where I assume employees take their own pictures for ID cards and a small self-service ticketing machine for employees. Eight fake small trees surround the black leather chairs, but looking out onto one of the building's courtyards I count four real trees higher than the building itself. Most unusual item in the lobby area is the periscope tube coming down from the ceiling. What's this contraption used for? It houses an electronic identification system where employees enter their ID cards.
Niklaus Ryser, Product Manager, shows up and says he deals with sports promotion. After explaining what I'm doing he says there's been a misunderstanding and it's a definite case for public relations. He gives me the name of Peter Gutknecht to contact and leaves. I try contacting Gutknecht but he isn't in. Coming back the next day I'm told by an unnamed secretary, "the whole public relations department is unavailable because of an emergency". No problem, I understand how things happen unexpectedly. The next day I ride back (in heavy rain) and get a similar runaraound being told "everyone's busy".
Alusuisse-Lonza Holding Ltd.
The city of Zurich wraps around one end of Lake Zurich. The lake isn't so much wide (a mile across) as it is long (25 miles). As mentioned earlier, on one side of the lake near downtown Zurich quite a few insurance companies have laid claim to lakefront offices. On the other side it's the same except the companies lining the waterfront aren't insurance companies.
One of the more unusual buildings is Aluisuisse-Lonza Holding's. Back in 1957 when the four-story, square-shaped structure was built it caused quite a stir. Today it's a listed building meaning it can't be torn down. What makes it so special? Aluminum. It's everywhere, all over the outsides and insides of the place. Then again, what do you expect, until the last few years when it diversified, Alusuisse-Lonza was primarily an aluminum company. Nowadays, 29% of it's 7.5 billion Swiss francs in revenues comes from aluminum, 37% from packaging, 24% from chemicals and 8% raw materials/trading.
Outside the front entrance there's a small crowd gathered around what looks to be a three-wheel bicycle enclosed in an aluminum shell. Pulling up on my bike I'm greeted by Hans Peter Held, Manager-Press Relations, who says I've arrived just in time to be taken for a spin in the prototype two-seat, sun-powered contraption with LOTS of aluminum components. I agree. It's a tight fit but you sit in it like a regular car except you're uncomfortably close to the ground. To be honest it's a VERY scary ride. It might have something to do with the fact you're very low to the ground AND you look defenseless and vulnerable in car traffic AND I'm not in control doing the driving. Thankfully the driver only goes for a four-block spin.
Held brings me inside headquarters and there's aluminum EVERYWHERE. The reception counter's aluminum, ditto the 10-foot circular fountain in the middle of the large four-story atrium. All office doors are aluminum, the banister on the four-story winding staircase is aluminum along with aluminum light panels on the ceiling and even the giant clock hanging from the third floor balcony is aluminum. Giving a strange contrast to all the aluminum in the atrium lobby is the bright blue square tile floor, similar to the small square tiles found in swimming pools.
On the top floor there's a large plant-filled outdoor balcony overlooking the lake, which gets used quite often for receptions and cocktail parties. I even meet the building custodian who lives in an apartment on the top floor.
The 50-60 employees don't have a cafeteria but make due with vending machines and get free coffee. Smoking is allowed in the building.
CEO Theodor Tschopp, though he's busy at work, welcomes me inside his corner office with an excellent view overlooking the lake. I make note of his computer, fresh flowers and (surprise!) aluminum desk. Tschopp mentions last week being the Fourth of July. I tell him I miss the smell of BBQ's and fireworks in the USA.
As I'm leaving, Held is still trying to give me several bottles of wine. The company owns a winery and to tell you the truth I hadn't heard of Swiss wine. Held says I probably hadn't heard of it because it's so expensive. I kept telling Held I couldn't accept the wine because of having absolutely zero room on my bicycle. I finally give in and accept the two bottles (one red "Pinot Noir" 1990 and the other white "Ferdant" 1994) strapping them on my bike. It just so happens it's Friday so, back in the hotel I forgo typing stories tonight and splurge on a pay-TV movie in the room. Heck, do you realize it's the only place I get to watch movies in English. Anyway, I open both bottles and they're marvelous!
Klaus J. Jacobs Holding AG
Earlier, going through Lausanne, Switzerland I stopped to visit the head office of Adia SA, the world's third biggest temporary employment agency. It's on the third floor of a seven-story plain building in downtown. I learn from Annette Notheisen, project coordinator, that Klaus J. Jacobs Holding, a Zurich-based company, owns 53% of the company. Notheisen says she'll fax advance material about me to Zurich so I'll be expected.
Now that I think about it, I had heard of Klaus J. Jacob. He's the fellow who sold his chocolate company (Jacobs-Suchard) to Philip Morris (Kraft) back in 1992 and made hundreds of millions of dollars from the sale.
This is strange. I'm on the Zurich lakefront area a block away from Alusuisse-Lonza's offices and in front of me lies the offices of Kraft-Jacobs-Suchard. Going a block away on the OTHER side of Alusuisse-Lonza brings me to the two villa offices of Klaus J. Jacobs Holding.
Evidently the faxed material never found it's way anywhere but that doesn't matter since the cordial Burkhard Brinkmann, Vice President-Controller, says he's intrigued by my project and is glad to spend time with me.
So what has Jacobs been doing since he cashed out big time back in 1992? Plenty. His new industrial holding company (Klaus J. Jacobs) has it's hands in a variety of fields with total 1995 revenues of over 5.5 billion Swiss francs. Over 3.8 billion of that comes from personnel services (Adia), 785 million from industrial chocolates, 868 million in consumer confectionery (owns Brach candies in Chicago) plus he owns two banks in Germany and a sports goods company which makes surfboards. Klaus J. Jacobs trades about 15% of the world's cocoa beans, putting them up with the big boys (Cargill, Grace Cocoa and Nestle).
Asking Brinkmann the age of these two elegant three-story lakefront villas I'm surprised to learn the villa we're in is a fake. Built in 1988 to look old, it definitely fooled me. Now the villa next door is a completely different story. Built in 1913 in the style of a Bernese patrician-house, it's a historic building. Back in 1984 it housed a museum called the Jacobs Suchard Museum. The museum left the Jacobs Suchard company when the company was sold and joined the Johann Jacobs Foundation. So what's inside the villa now? Besides housing the first floor office of CEO Klaus Jacobs, there's one of the world's finest collections of coffee history and memorabilia. The museum has four parts. (1) The museum library, with over 3,000 titles (including 16th century manuscripts on coffee) it's considered the largest library if its kind. (2) Collection of graphic arts and paintings. all having the common theme of coffee. (3) an impressive collection of porcelain serving ware and (4) silver coffeepots and services.
I ask about the former offices (now Kraft Jacobs-Suchard) being only a block away and Brinkmann says his boss likes the neighborhood. Only 20 people work here. Though there's no cafeteria, there's a breakroom and good coffee is definitely to be had here. I can't see CEO Jacobs' office because "he's in". The company has one corporate aircraft; a Falcon.
After finishing with Brinkmann I walk across to the other villa to check out the coffee museum. Entering the building you pass by a corner office. I take a gander in the room as I walk by but don't see the head honcho at work. Probably taking a coffee break.
Lindt & Spruengli AG
Just to give you an idea what an idiot I can be read on. I had a real problem finding reliable information on companies to visit in Europe which, as you know, primarily is determined by a company's annual revenue. I typed up company names and addresses but for the most part never made a note as to what business they're in. So here I am in Kilchberg, a half dozen miles from Zurich on the lakefront and I'm looking for Lindt & Spruengli which I assume is a hardware store chain because I faintly recall seeing stores with that name. So imagine my surprise when I come upon this manufacturing plant on the side of the road with the heavenly smell of chocolate coming from it. Turns out Lindt & Spruengli, with revenues of 863 million Swiss francs, has been churning out chocolate since 1845.
It's starting to rain again but that's not a problem here as I park my trusty steed in a covered parking section for cyclists. Entering the six-story administration building and walking up to the reception counter I come face to face with a silver tray overflowing with various kinds of delectable-looking chocolates. My problem with chocolate being, I can't eat just one so I restrain my hands.
Receptionist Frau E. Spielmann calls around to find out who ended up with my advance material. I don't know her first name because nobody in Europe ever wants to give it out. Looking around the chairless, lobby waiting area I spot a cigarette vending machine! I'm sorry but Lindt & Spruengli just went down a notch in my eyes because chocolate and cigarettes don't conjure up a pleasant picture.
They can't locate my letter but, Sylvia Kaelin, secretary of the board (she's secretary to the board of directors), takes matters into her own hands by answering questions and showing me around. Thirty people work for the holding company here with 600 working in the adjacent production facility and 380 in the rest of the building.
Part of the plant was built in stages, between1899 and 1959. The building we're in was built in 1954 and added on to in 1963. A busy road passes by the front of the place, with Lake Zurich a short nine iron shot away. The railway line runs behind the property so, the road and railroad hem in the site.
I can't see CEO Ernest Tanner's office due to him being "in a meeting" which means no getting to find out what kind of chocolates, if any, he keeps on the coffee table. I do get a tour of the company museum which does a history timeline-type display. Kaelin sends me away with a stash of chocolates. Goodies includes several boxes of "Fioretto", a new product introduced in 1995. The fancy wrapped chocolates have a rich, fluffy creamy center. Yummy.
Movenpick Holding AG
I've become a fan of Movenpick hotels while in Europe. The chain of hotels, mostly four stars properties between luxury and mid-price, has a difference. It's not just the staff, which, believe it or not is noticeably friendlier but the properties themselves have a "fun" feel. Movenpick Holding however is not just hotels, they operate several restaurant chains, sell their own brand of premium ice cream, jams, fruit juices, coffees, yogurt in over 30 countries plus, sell a large section of wines. Revenues in 1995 were 923 million Swiss francs.
Headquarters lies a dozen miles from Zurich in small-townish Adliswil. I envision the place looking like one of their hotels but turns out to be far from it. About a mile out of downtown Adliswil I come across what looks to be several connected two-story temporary buildings, you know the kind built for use while the permanent structure is being built. Next door is an old family-style roadside restaurant with farm animals on the grounds. I like the "no smoking" sign when entering headquarters.
Christopher Risler, inhouse events, welcomes me and gives an extensive tour. "Boy, I was expecting something a little more fancy", I blurt out. Risler says for the last 18 years headquarters has been in these "temporary" buildings. Each year the company thinks about building a permanent headquarters and for one reason or another doesn't go through with it and gets an extension from the town to use the temporary structures for another year. The company has a small four-story building down the road but is in definite need of more space because of growth. I assumed there would be a flagship hotel nearby but Risler says no. He does admit the company has a small motel down the road but nowhere is it mentioned being part of Movenpick because Risler says it's definitely a low-end property.
Over 400 employees work here and in the other building down the road. There's a definite feel of being in the country; thirty feet from office windows sheep are grazing, peacocks are roaming, horses and donkeys are hanging out by the restaurant and ducks are quacking way.
I mention the place being two stories, well, actually the basement is the first floor.
Having a look at the boardroom means going down to the basement. It's like being in a time warp from the 1960's with 12 ugly green chairs surrounding four white tables placed together. There're no windows but, a bar--where they do wine tasting (they sell lots of wines). Can't see the insides of Managing Director Ulrich Geismann because "he's in" but I do look in his outside window. The connecting temporary buildings form a U-shape and so his corner office is located at the top of the "U". Risler takes me to the top of the other 'U' where I can look over into his office.
Employees can eat in the company cafeteria or in the company-owned, country-style restaurant. There's a break area with coffee etc. and employees get a third off on Movenpick ice cream bars. Earlier in the day I visited chocolate maker Lindt & Spruengli and was loaded down with chocolate so I gave some to the receptionist. Risler then gives me certificates worth 50 Swiss francs to use at their restaurants.
Twenty miles northeast of Zurich finds me in Winterthur, a not very exciting city of 80,000 people but, itís home to three big companies. The biggest, being Winterthur Insurance. With 22 billion in gross premiums in 1995 it's Europe's sixth biggest insurer.
About a half-mile from downtown I come across two Winterthur buildings. One is a long brown five-story structure, which looks to have been built in the 1980's. On the same side of the street but split by a public street is a grand-looking three-story edifice with a seven-story tower built in the 1930's. Neither building has an street address number (it's General Guisan-Strasse 40) so I have to take a guess as to which one would house the executives. I pick the new building and it's the wrong choice.
Nobody's familiar with what I'm doing but, Dr. Juerg Spiller, corporate secretary, agrees to meet with me. I'm a fan of buildings from this age and they usually have impressive interiors. Not here. Matter of fact, it's pretty boring. Even the boardroom isn't worth mentioning. About 1,800 employees work in five buildings in the immediate vicinity which is a mixed-use area meaning residential homes are across the street. It's a 20-minute drive to Zurich International airport.
Rieter Holding AG
The rain's coming down hard as I stop at the guard gate to get directions to Rieter Holding's office. It's a big plant site located on the outskirts of Winterthur with two dozen buildings and 2,000 employees working here. Rieter manufactures textile machinery and its automotive division manufactures systems, noise control and thermal insulation products and interior trim parts from fibers and plastics for the automotive industry. Revenues in 1995 were 2 billion Swiss francs.
The two-story unassuming headquarters building was built in 1990 but is definitely no-frills for the 40 employees. There's a fake tree in the small lobby and no receptionist but, a sign telling you to "dial your party". Since I don't know who my party is I start dialing around until it's tracked down that Friedrich Weibel, Head Human Resources, ended up with my advance material.(Note-his business card reads Head Human Resources- no commas or "of").
Weibel admits the place is definitely no-frills pointing out there's no elevator or air conditioning in the head office of the 201-year old company. Nothing special about CEO Kurt Feller's office or of his view, which is blocked out by surrounding plant buildings. Unlike the fake tree in the lobby Feller has two real plants in his office, no family pictures but, a Swatch watch.
Weibel, seeming disappointed in not coming up with anything noteworthy for me, saves the day by remembering they have a two-lane bowling alley in the basement.
A three-minute walk from downtown Winterthur brings you to Sulzer's big, three building complex. Sulzer, founded in 1834 by three brothers, manufactures weaving machines, pacemakers, industrial pumps and, operates in the plant and building services sector. Revenues in 1995 were 5.7 billion with 27,000 employees worldwide.
One of the three buildings is an ugly 25-story tower built in the 1960's. It sticks out like a sore thumb in this town. I'm in the lobby of the newest building, which probably isn't more than a year or two old. The two-story lobby area contains 12 black leather chairs, which really make the white walls stand out. Three glass display cases show some of the company's products including pacemakers.
It's after 5 P.M. and I luck out in finding Hans-Caspar Ryser, Corporate Press Officer, still around to meet with me though I hurry it up because I know he wants to go home. About 800 people work in the three buildings with 70 working for the holding company. The company has an art collection consisting primarily of European impressionists including works by Van Gogh. The boardroom looks pretty average and features an elongated table seating 22.
I get clearance to see CEO Fritz Fahrni's office (it's 5:30 PM and he's still here) so we head over to the third building, a five-story grayish structure from the 1930's or 1940's. Fahrni's top floor corner office contains a family picture, computer, three plants and an uninspiring view of the street. Fahrni invites me to sit down and chat and I give him a quick overview of my quirky trek and then kid him about working past 5 PM. Across the street is a large deserted company plant but part of it is now used as a go-cart racing track.
SIG Holding AG
Heading a dozen miles north of Winterthur and I'm in Neuhausen am Rheinfall, population 35,000. Besides having the famous waterfalls on the Rhine River, it's also where SIG Holding calls home. With 1995 revenues of 1.6 billion Swiss francs SIG Holding operates in a variety of business which includes making compressed air tools, conveyer belts, hunting rifles, semi-automatic pistols, assault rifles, wood pallets, intercar gangways on trains, packaging systems, pneumatic breakers and drive systems.
Head office, a three-story stucco finished building with blue trim windows has a 1920's look to it and sits inside a plant site which requires passing through a guarded gate. Turns out it's a waste of time making my way here as Margrit Glaess, secretary to CEO Dr. Ulrich Datwyler, says they aren't interested in meeting with me. Hmm, Glaess wouldn't tell my why they're gun shy.
Georg Fischer AG
Schaffhausen, population 34,000, lies about two miles from the Swiss-German border. Finding the seven-story head office of Georg Fischer brings me within a half-mile of the border. Located in an industrial area, Georg Fischer traces its roots back to 1802 and has been a publicly listed company since 1896.
The receptionist calls around and nobody has a clue about what I'm doing. Lucky for me David Strohm, Head of Public Relations, walks into the building and readily agrees to answer questions and give a tour. Built in the 1960's there actually nothing worth seeing in the nondescript building. About 50 work here with 1,400 employees working in plants in the area including two adjacent to this building. Georg Fischer, 1995 revenues 2.7 billion Swiss francs, manufactures automotive products, electric discharge systems, builds plants and, is the biggest producer of pipe systems in Europe.
I can't see CEO Martin Huber's office because "he's busy" but I given a similar view of what he sees via a nearby window---he looks out onto the parking lot. I do get a tour of one of the factories.