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A roller coaster year for Swiss business

Switzerland's mobile phone operators forked out just SFr205 million for four UMTS licences

(Keystone)

The business year in Switzerland was marked by a series of upheavals affecting some of the country's best-known names. Takeovers, mergers and acquisitions have been at the forefront and there were also high profile resignations.

One company that was rarely out of the news as 2000 progressed was the country's biggest telecommunications firm, Swisscom. There were a number of highs and lows for the company and its workforce.

In February, Swisscom launched its WAP service allowing Internet access through mobile phone technology, and in summer it announced plans to spin off its mobile phone division into a separate company altogether.

In March, there was the shock announcement that 3,000 jobs were to be cut and another 3,000 were to be outsourced. The cuts are to take place between 2001 and 2003.

The telecommunications sector remained in the headlines as Switzerland prepared to hold the auction of the third generation of mobile phone (UMTS) licences.

The government initially expected billions of francs to roll into its coffers but the sale collapsed as one company after another dropped out of the race in the run-up to the auction. And on the eve of the November sale, two of the bidding companies merged leaving just four companies for four licences.

The auction was postponed until December but then held under the original rules, with a starting price of SFr50 million ($30.5 million). The licences went for a total of just SFr205 million.

Swiss banks also featured strongly this year. Both UBS and Credit Suisse announced record profits for 1999 and then went on an autumn spending spree in the US.

UBS moved first with its SFr17 billion acquisition of the investment bank, Paine Webber. A few weeks later, Credit Suisse bought Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette for SFr19.5 billion.

Financial institutions around the world came under increasing pressure as the year wore on to tighten regulations to prevent money laundering.

This resulted in the presentation in November of the Wolfsberg principles. Drawn up by UBS, Credit Suisse and seven competitors around the world, the principles set a global standard to try to prevent dirty money entering the private banking system.

Among the other corporate news headlines, shareholders of the Algroup decided in July in favour of a merger with the Canadian aluminium group, Alcan. Their merger formed the second biggest aluminium producer in the world.

In September, one of Switzerland's best known companies, Sulzer announced it was to sell off five divisions accounting for around two-thirds of its turnover.

The reorganisation will cost around 150 jobs. Plans announced at the same time to merge with Sulzer Medica were later shelved after the markets responded badly.

Another household name disappeared altogether as Oerliken Bührle changed its name to Unaxis. This was a consequence of a refocusing on information technology.

The Swiss-Swedish technology group, ABB, shocked the markets in October with the news that its CEO, Goran Lindahl, was to step down at the end of year. Lindahl had been at the helm for just four years and oversaw ABB's transformation into a technology-based company. He said he felt it was time to hand over to a younger man.

Another high-profile resignation was that of Swissair CEO, Jeffrey Katz. After just three years in the position, he went back to the US to take up a job in e-commerce.

Swissair had a bad year with profits hit by soaring fuel prices and a strong dollar. But speculation that its parent company, SAirGroup, may sell a stake in the airline came to nothing.

September saw the signing of a historic trade deal between Switzerland and China that paved the way for Beijing's entry to the World Trade Organisation. It also opened the way for Swiss companies to increase their operations in China.

Danish companies bought heavily into Switzerland this year. The brewery Carlsberg, swallowed Feldschösschen but said the brand names of Switzerland's biggest brewery would survive.

And Teledanmark bought both Sunrise and Diax and merged them to challenge Swisscom's position as Switzerland's dominant telecommunications company.

by Michael Hollingdale

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