Firmenich SA

I've visited IFF, Givaudan and, now it's Firmenich's turn. These are the three big players in the world of fragrance and flavors. You don't actually think Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren putter around a laboratory concocting perfumes and colognes do you? You know that toothpaste, steak sauce or laundry detergent you use? Well, it's thanks to these guys that it smells or tastes like it does.

Headquartered near Geneva's airport, privately-held Firmenich generates $1.2 billion in revenues and has over 4,300 employees. Its two rivals IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances) and Givaudan, are both publicly-held and each generated revenues last year of $1.9 billion.

La Plaine, about 10 miles from Geneva's city center, is nothing more than a tiny village tucked away in a small narrow valley with a river running through it. It's here where Firmenich operates a factory. Matter of fact, it's only a few miles away from rival Givaudan's head office/factory complex. Why are they both in this area? The river. Firmenich's roots date back to 1895 and back then water was a source of power to run factories.

Three security guards are manning the guard gate when I arrive. None of the three speak English. I identify myself and watch one of the guards retrieve a piece of paper. I can see my name on the paper as he makes a phone call. I'm put on the phone and learn the head office is back near the airport. The guard gets out a big map and plots out its location for me. Aw jeez, it turns out I passed within two blocks of the place while cycling out here.

I'm now in an industrial park area near Geneva's airport. Several watch companies visited last year (Chopard and Roger Dubuis) are within a few blocks of Firmenich's large research/production/head office complex. The facility is fenced in and a good-size freestanding sign with the name "Firmenich" in big letters near the entrance lets visitors know they've found the place. After passing muster with the guards at the gate I check-in with the friendly receptionist. The reception waiting area contains quite a few glass displays showing a wide range of name brand consumer products, who are obviously clients of Firmenich.

It's a fun visit thanks to the delightful Karen Saddler, Director-Corporate Communications. Buildings have been built in various stages but the four-story glass structure in the right side of the picture accompanying this story (with the open windows) was built in 1989 and that's where CEO Patrick Firmenich hangs his hat (he's the fourth generation to run the company) . About 800 people work on this site with a total of over 1,500 in the Geneva area. Employee parking is free and plentiful, smoking is allowed in designated areas, there's no formal dress code and covered parking for cyclists. The good-looking company cafeteria has terraces for sitting and eating outside. It's five miles to downtown Geneva, less than a mile to the nearest freeway and one and a half miles to Geneva's airport. There are no on-site recreational facilities but, showers are available.

CEO Firmenich occupies a modest second floor middle office. I note the computer, family pictures and, don't see any plants or flowers. The view out his window? The nearby street. Not far from Firmenich's office is something you don't see too often in a building; a 24-foot long sailboat. Built in 1914, it's been used for sailing by several generations of the Firmenich family.

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