With revenues of $6.2 billion, Syngenta gets to call itself the
world's biggest agro-chemicals company. It's the result of a
merger in 2000 between the agro-business operations of Switzerland's
Novartis and the agro-chemicals business of AstraZeneca, the
Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical group.
Basel, with a population of about 130,000, lies in the extreme
northwest corner of Switzerland. The borders of Germany, France
and Switzerland intersect here which explains the city having
separate German, French and Swiss railway stations.
Directly across the street from the German railway station stands
a 13-story 1960's building with name Syngenta in big letters
atop it. This must be the place so I lock the bike and start
walking towards the building entrance. It turns out I'm wrong
as security guards motion to the four-story, fortress-like structure
When the huge front doors automatically open up it suddenly occurs
to me that I've been to this brown building before. How? During
my first trek through Switzerland back in 1996 I attempted to
visit pharmaceutical companies Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis).
Months earlier a merger between the two had been announced. During
my early years of visiting companies I would cross off my list
companies that had announced merger plans with another. However,
what frequently happened was the planned merger fell apart and
I'd kick myself for not having visited the company. Sandoz and
Ciba-Geigy had their offices right across the Rhine River from
each other and after getting the runaround from each I learned
by chance that the CEO of Ciba-Geigy was working out of this
building. I dropped by, talked to his secretary but ended up
being referred back to their communications department in another
building. In 1999 I returned to Basel and Novartis and enjoyed
a great visit.
So, entering the building I walk up a half dozen steps to the
security guard/receptionist sitting behind a glass partition
similar to what banks use. I explain who I am and ask if she
could contact CEO Michael Pragnell's secretary to find out who
ended up with my letter of introduction sent a month earlier.
The lobby /waiting area is but a few steps away but it's separated
by sliding glass security doors and I'm not invited inside (I
don't recall the glass doors being in place six years ago). I
wait. Ten minutes go by and I'm still standing. Twenty minutes
go by and I'm still standing outside the doors. Meanwhile people
are being let in and out of the glass doors and visitors are
comfortably situated on sofas and chairs in the waiting area.
Me, I'm feeling funny because I have no where to sit and the
people in the waiting area are looking at me like I'm some kind
of undesirable. Several times I ask the receptionist/security
guard if I can sit in the waiting room but she declines to let
me in. I guess I can't blame her, she's probably just following
After 25 minutes of my standing around, Juerg Eberle, Communications
Manager-Media Relations, greets me. He knows nothing about what
I do and says the company never received my letter of introduction
plus, he's pressed for time and says I can have 10 minutes. It's
a disaster as he's guarded and couldn't care less about what
Eberle doesn't know (and isn't interested in finding out) how
many people work in this building. About 1,200 work in the factory
complex directly behind this building. There're no on-site recreational
facilities, smoking is allowed in your own office, senior management
gets reserved parking spots and it's 30 seconds to the nearest
freeway. It's 20 minutes to Basel Airport, five minutes to Basel's
city center and there's no formal dress code.
My request to see CEO Pragnell's office and the boardroom is
quickly quashed because "they're not available to visitors".
The extent of my seven-minute visit consists of the marbled floor
lobby. I tell Eberle of my disappointment but he says it's the
best he can do since he has no background material on me.
End of story? Not quite. While in Basel the local newspaper interviewed
me for a story. I told the reporter how much I enjoyed the city
and of the nice receptions-that is except for Syngenta---where
I was made to feel like an undesirable and given a crummy reception.
A few days after the story comes out I receive a nice E-mail
from Michael Stopford, Head of Global Public Affairs & Government
Relations, at Syngenta. In it Stopford apologizes profusely for
what happened. My letter of introduction had been passed on to
him but he had neglected to make arrangements for my visit. Why?
Stopford had recently joined Syngenta and was back in the US
(Kansas to be more specific) moving his family to Switzerland.
If I ever make it back to Basel Stopford extends an invitation
for a revisit.