Nestle SA

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.