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Small businesses urged to look abroad

Joesph Deiss, the Swiss foreign minister, spoke about the importance of foreign trade Keystone Archive

The Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, has urged small businesses to consider the benefits of expanding their operations abroad.

Speaking at a foreign trade forum in Zurich on Thursday, Deiss said that international trade was still dominated by the country’s larger companies.

“Imports and exports currently account for some SFr140 billion ($95 billion) a year,” Deiss pointed out, “but only a tiny per cent of small firms are involved in foreign trade.”

“Increasingly though, small and medium-sized businesses are finding themselves under pressure to become internationally active,” the minister added.

“Just as a good meal or a good wine can stimulate the body, foreign trade can similarly help to stimulate the national economy.”

Deiss’s speech came at the close of the annual foreign commerce forum organised by the non-profit organisation, Osec Business Network Switzerland, which has been promoting trade between Swiss companies and foreign markets for the past 75 years.

As part of a recent strategy relaunch, Osec has been setting up business hubs abroad, providing small and medium-sized enterprises with assistance and local information.

New centres

By the end of the year, the organisation plans to have 12 new business centres open, with up to eight more scheduled to open within another two years.

“The aim of this meeting is mainly to bring together business executives and decision-makers, allow them to exchange ideas and to see what’s happening in the economies of the world,” Osec CEO Balz Hösly told swissinfo.

A lack of competitiveness in the Swiss economy and a perceived aversion to risk were two of the main topics for discussion at this year’s forum.

But in the current poor economic climate, Hösly admits that “expansion” and “risk” are not the most welcome words for managers of small companies.

“It’s absolutely true that most small companies only have one expansion project on the go at any one time, and if that project fails it can be fatal to the company.

“That’s why we are here – to try and lower the risk threshold by taking the companies by the hand and helping them into foreign markets, using the expertise of our hub centres.”

Foreign markets

In many ways, Osec was preaching to the converted at Thursday’s forum, with most of the assembled delegates already active in foreign markets.

But by continuing its work with regional chambers of commerce, Hösly insists that Osec is rapidly bringing new players onto the international business stage.

“It’s a matter of survival to make the Swiss economy as international as possible,” Hösly argues.

“It’s important not to overestimate the importance of Switzerland and its economy because we are simply too small to be among the big hitters.

“But we have to work to make sure that we preserve a position in world trade which corresponds to the size of our economy.”

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Zurich

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