Thomas Minder – undisputed winner of the vote weekend – was an unknown quantity ten years ago. The success of his fat cat initiative, combatting exorbitant manager salaries, is due both to the popularity of the issue and to his single-minded tenacity.
Described by friends and opponents as resolute and at times abusive, Minder describes himself as stubborn and dogged. The 52-year-old head of a small family business in Schaffhausen in north-eastern Switzerland, has been a member of the Senate since 2011.
Now he’s the topic of conversation at every table in the land. He irritates the elite of both politics and business. His has a popular mission to bring the big earners of big business to their knees.
Minder’s mission took off in the autumn of 2001, with the grounding of Switzerland’s national airline, Swissair. The airline – a major client of the toothpaste manufacturer Thomas Minder – faced insolvency and bankruptcy. That set his medium-sized business reeling.
Out of Swissair, Swiss International Airline was born and the toothpaste business was saved. But Minder’s company recorded a loss. And that fed his resentment of the people responsible for the grounding.
The blood of the people of Switzerland began to boil.
The tabloid Blick launched a month-long campaign against greedy top managers. Minder suggested a requirement that the salaries of business leaders be approved at companies’ annual shareholder meetings.
But the political establishment gave him the cold shoulder.
In October 2006 Minder began collecting signatures for an initiative which came to be known by his name.
Collection proceeded quickly. No wonder: the people of the country were outraged, and the debate over the perceived excesses of managers was widely debated throughout the country.
Born December 26, 1960, in Neuhausen am Rheinfall.
After his compulsory education he graduated from a business school in Neuchâtel.
Following graduation he spent two years as import-export manager for a hat manufacturer in Paris, France.
Minder earned a Master’s of Business Administration degree from Fordham University in New York.
Minder is a lieutenant colonel in the Switzerland’s militia army.
For the past 23 years Minder has headed the company Trybol in Schaffhausen.
The family business is not listed on the stock market. As a result, Minder provides no information about the level of his own salary.
Lots of money for little work
Above all, Minder resented Swissair’s last chief executive, Mario Corti, who was only on board for a few months, yet had managed to arrange to receive five years’ salary before taking office.
At the same time, Swiss Federal Railways had doubled the salaries of its top managers.
Prominent members of the centre-left Social Democratic Party protested loudly and began using the term "rip-off” in connection with the practice of overcompensating managers.
Moreover, managers Percy Barnevik and Göran Lindahl of the Swiss-Swedish technology firm ABB drove their company to the edge of ruin, yet received severance pay to the tune of CHF233 million ($247 million).
But the road to the vote was a long one. The conservative majority in parliament protested against what it considered to be a radical anti-business initiative.
Over years it dragged out the issue until finally an alternative proposal lay on the table and the date for the vote was set.
During this time, Minder appeared as a resolute loner.
After the uproar over the leading Swiss bank UBS, which would have folded without a government bail-out, Minder denounced its top flight as "Losers of the century” and as “studs in pinstripes”.
At the UBS annual meeting in April 2008 Minder wanted to deliver a copy of the Swiss Code of Obligations to chief executive Marcel Ospel. But security staff escorted him away like a convict and Minder looked crestfallen.
Minder chose to voice his dissatisfaction over the fat cats, the pin-stripe-wearers, the sleazy politicians and the lethargy of the political system not on the streets or at home but on television and in the media.
He became a national figure, identified with outrage against greed.
There is no other explanation for the fact that in autumn 2011 the voters of Canton Schaffhausen elected Minder seemingly out of nowhere to represent them in the Senate, normally a position reserved for seasoned politicians.
On top of that, Minder was elected without belonging to a political party.
In the climate of the Senate, normally a body that values consensus, Minder stuck out.
Colleagues described him as someone who is unwilling to compromise but who says what he thinks.
Hardliners at odds
After his election, Minder affiliated with the parliamentary group of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, but remained politically independent.
He described the strongman of the People’s Party, Christoph Blocher, as a "traitor" because Blocher, after supporting Minder’s initiative for several years, ultimately came out against it in the run-up to the March 3 nationwide vote.
The People’s Party has made political mistakes on a variety of issues, said Minder, but "I agree with them on a hardline stance about asylum issues.”
However, he and the People’s Party are diametrically opposed when it comes to energy policy.
Minder supports the Green Party position, favouring the development of renewable energy sources and withdrawal from reliance on nuclear energy as soon as possible.
Still, he names a further similarity between himself and the People’s Party: they have "a good understanding of their constituents”.
Minder himself has touched a nerve in the population. He is the big winner of a vote that produced an emotional debate cutting through all the social classes. David has triumphed over Goliath, yet the hobby endurance athlete and ornithologist hasn’t yet reached his goal.
Strictly speaking, the initiative requires changes to the corporate law that would lead to the strengthening of shareholder rights.
Experts disagree over whether the exorbitant manager salaries can be prevented over the long term. The initiative will still have to be implemented by parliament, and it is likely that some of the rough edges will be sanded down.
It wouldn’t be the first initiative to fail to attain its original goal. Minder himself apparently reckons with such a scenario.
“I never said that my goal was the reduction of salaries,” he stated a few days ago in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper which is traditionally close to the business community.
"I just want shareholders to take responsibility for the levels of remuneration. If the shareholders want to waste company money by paying exorbitant amounts, that’s their problem.”
(Translated from German by Jeannie Wurz)