Compagnie Financiere Tradition S.A.

Unless you're in the international business community you've probably never heard of Compagnie Financiere Tradition. This Lausanne-based firm does business in 16 countries, has over $620 million in revenues and 1,800 employees. What do they do? Tradition acts as a broker in over-the-counter (OTC) and regulated markets, earnings commissions from negotiating trades and facilitating counter party transactions. That might explain why 75% of its 1,800 employees are brokers.

Though the company was founded in Lausanne (population 120,000) back in 1959, it keeps a low local profile. No signs or name plaques decorate the exterior of nine-story, chocolate-colored headquarters in the city center. Having visited over 3,600 companies I've become pretty good at judging a building's age. This one was definitely built in the 1960's because chocolate-colored buildings with smoked window exteriors were in fashion back then.

Entering the curved building I find neither a reception area nor a receptionist but, a small sign directing visitors up to the seventh floor. I'd already received an e-mail from the company saying they've received my letter of introduction and that my contact person would be Magali Citerne, receptionist. I've been visiting companies for a long time and sometimes I've felt offended when a company designates the receptionist as my contact person. Why? It makes me think they think I'm so insignificant and unimportant that it need not go any further up in the chain-of-command. Some of the time it has turned out to be true (that I've been deemed insignificant) but other times it has been a smart move by the company. Why? Receptionists man the front line (greeting visitors in person and on the phone), have contact with a wide variety of company employees and, ones who have been around for a while know the building inside and out. Anyway, I end up having a nice reception and extensive tour of the place thank to the charming and informative Magali Citerne, who's been with the company 12 years.

About 60 employees work here. Senior management gets covered parking, smoking is permitted in the workplace, there's no formal dress code, no recreational facilities, it's 45 minutes to Geneva's airport and five minutes to the nearest freeway. There's no cafeteria but, a break room with vending machines. However, there is full kitchen facility. The founder of the company (Andre Levy-who retired in 1994) used to employ a personal chief to whip up his meals.

I can't see the top floor office of CEO Patrick Combes. Why? It's locked because he spends most of the time in Paris. Why? Publicly-traded Tradition is essentially a holding company and, is in turn, 75% owned by Paris-based Viel & Cie–of which Combes is the boss. Next to Combes' office is an outside terrace and Citerne and I step outside for a look. The view is fantastic—overlooking the city, the lake and in the distance, France and the French Alps on the other side of the several miles wide lake.

Nothing special about the boardroom on the top floor. The decor and furnishings, like most of the building, is from the late 1960's or early 1970's. The boardroom table seats 12, there's one small tree (real) and on a wall hangs a large oil painting of Allinghi, the sailing vessel responsible for Switzerland recently corralling the America's Cup.

Before leaving I'm given a walk-through of the small trading floor (about 30 brokers).