I was in Basel three years ago and arrived not too long after pharmaceutical giants Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy announced their intentions to merge. It's not a good time to show up when a company's planning to merge but I've learned from experience that it's never a "done deal". How many times have you read about companies merging only to have the deal fall through six months down the road? What was really unique about these two long time competitors wasn't so much that they were from the same city but located directly across the Rhine River from each other in huge plant sites.

So, I visited Sandoz and was referred to someone across the river at Ciba-Geigy. Riding my bike across the bridge (which passes along both sites) I stopped in at Ciba-Geigy and was referred back to Sandoz. I returned to Sandoz, only to be referred to a building several miles away near the German railway station. I throw in mention of the German railway station because Basel has three separate railway stations since it's at the crossroads of three countries: Switzerland, Germany & France. My visit to the building near the railway station proved futile as I was referred back to one of the other two sites. That's when I threw in the towel and gave up.

It's now June 21, 1999 (three years later) and I'm ready to try again as I arrive at Novartis. It's located several miles from downtown and fronts the Rhine River on the former Sandoz site. It's a huge complex. One can't enter the place however until you pass muster with the guards at the gated entry. Evidently they know who I am because the guard says to hold on while he makes a call. A few minutes later I receive a warm welcome from Mark Hill, Media Relations.

The first thing Hill does is to show me a scale model of the headquarters/plant site. It's big, with dozens of buildings scattered all over. Quite a few buildings are for research and many for pharmaceutical production. Hill calls it a campus but I disagree because there's a busy public street slicing through the property. What's really interesting though is that some of the buildings extend over into France, including a large parking lot. So? Well, name me one other company where you can drive to work, park in the company's parking lot (located in one country) and by the time you've walked to your office (depending on which building you work in) you're in another country?

The tallest building in the complex rises 18 stories and the company's name is in big letters atop the sides. It looks to have been built in the 1970's. Hill and I zip up the elevator to the top floor and then hoof it up to the outside rooftop for a great view of the site, the city and surrounding countryside. Next to the large parking lot in France I can see the company recreational facility and can count 10 tennis courts and several soccer fields.

Hill treats me to lunch in one of the five cafeterias located on different floors in the same building. I thought this strange. Since the site is so big I thought they'd have cafeterias located throughout the complex. They do however, have snack shops scattered about. How's the food? Great. The breaded veal, mangetout (peas & beans) and potatoes au gratin were tasty and so was the dessert; meringue with whipped cream atop chocolate-like-mousse. I even try the whipped yogurt with fresh raspberries mixed in.

How far to downtown? Hill says it four tram stops. The tram system is extensive in Basel with trams seemingly going up and down every street. Okay I exaggerate about them going up and down every street, but for a biker like me it's no fun having to deal with the railings in the street and the trams silently sneaking up behind me and clanging the bell telling me to get out of the way.

It's two minutes to the nearest freeway and a 10-minute drive to Basel airport. Novartis has no company aircraft in Europe but a plane in the USA. I see plenty of bikes on-site with some company-issued and others personal. Hill's assistant walks me over to check out the new gymnasium and it contains all the latest exercise machines. The manager tells me lunchtime is the busiest part of day.

Any employee perks? Leaving the cafeteria I spot four photographs of chalets in the mountains posted on a wall. The company owns them and employees can sign up for free stays, only paying for housekeeping. We walk over to the company store and it's about the size of a 7-11 convenience store. Employees get somewhere around a 30% discount on Novartis products. Novartis manufactures and markets a zillion products including such well-known names as Ex-Lax, Maalox, Gerber baby food AND Ovaltine. Yep, I grew up drinking Ovaltine and still indulge occasionally. Over in Europe it's called Ovomaltine and they've extended this malted milk drink line to include yummy candy bars. As we walk around the store Hill says if there's something I'd like to try just let him know. I end up taking a can a Isostar (a Gatorade-type sports nutrition drink which I later find blah-tasting), a squeeze tube of peach-flavored energy paste (not bad) and, an energy bar called Jemalt 13+13 (very good)- which tasted suspiciously similar to the Ovomaltine bars I've been woofing down here in Europe.

So, I assumed CEO Daniel Vasella would hang his hat on the top floor of the tallest building. Nope, I was way off. His is a second floor, middle office in a four-story unimpressive building built in the 1930's or 40's. I 'm walked by his office but can't go in because he's in a meeting. Actually, he works here part of the week and several days he work in a building across the river near the German railway station (former Ciba-Geigy complex). Why? The merger between Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy was suppose to be a merger of equals and this is one way to show there was no favoritism of one over the other.

Novartis, derived from the Latin novae Artes meaning "new skills". About 4,300 people work in the headquarters/plant complex. Across the river in the former Ciba-Geigy complex, over 2,700 people are employed.

My Modus Operandi
This is for those of you unfamiliar with my methods. About a month before I anticipate arriving at a company I send a letter of introduction addressed to the CEO explaining my mission (collecting corporate trivia about their headquarters) and thanking them beforehand for any courtesies extended to me. I also enclose several news clippings and my Web site address (which hopefully lends some credibility). I give the company a week's timeframe in which I'll show up. It's extremely difficult to pinpoint exact arrival dates because I'm usually hundreds, sometimes several thousand miles and several countries away when the letters go out. I realize I'm showing up without an appointment but, I've been doing this for more than 10 years (visiting over 2,500 companies) and have found the majority of companies to be flexible and very accommodating.