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Corporate giants outgrow Swiss roots

Above-average Joes: Joe Jimenez (left) and Joe Hogan are two of many non-Swiss CEOs of Swiss companies Keystone

Last month seven chief executives of the top 20 Swiss firms were Swiss. Enter American Joe Jimenez as new Novartis CEO and the number is now down to six.

Jimenez, in his own words, doesn’t even notice that Novartis is Swiss. In the era of multinational corporate giants, the management code appears to be universal and nationality irrelevant.

But how far have Swiss-based multinationals drifted from their roots? In a global marketplace is corporate culture the only culture that counts?

Success brings expansion, and expansion means new territories, which eventually means a group’s presence outside Switzerland dwarfs the home base.

Take the engineering giant ABB. Headquartered in Zurich, with an American CEO, only 6,000 of the group’s 120,000 employees are based in Switzerland.

“ABB is a truly global company and has no dominating national culture,” ABB spokesman Wolfram Eberhardt told Although he stressed that the company’s Swiss heritage endured.

“We had two parent companies, Swiss and Swedish, that merged in 1988, and both shared an approach of a modest, straightforward way of doing business, a less hierarchical structure and approachable managers,” he said.

“This is still an important style momentum at ABB, although it has been complemented by other cultural influences.”

Business elite

Traditionally it was necessary to have many years of service within a company before reaching top managerial level, but with the emergence of a very mobile, international business elite, this practice is now the exception to the rule.

External appointments to chief executive or director level have become the norm, as in the case of Joe Hogan at ABB. Promotion to the top job may also follow a relatively short period heading a business unit. Joe Jimenez for example joined Novartis in April 2007 as CEO of the consumer health division and was appointed CEO of the pharmaceuticals division six months later.

According to a recruitment survey carried out in 2009, just four per cent of top management in Swiss companies worked their way up through the internal ranks.

This was in fact the career path of Markus Akermann, a Swiss who has been with building materials group Holcim since 1978 and CEO since 2002.

Long history

Tracing its roots to a small Swiss village almost a century ago, Holcim started expanding in the 1920s and now has production sites in around 70 countries.

“It is important that we have an international management. In the board and the executive committee we have a mixture of nationalities,” Holcim spokesman Peter Gysel told

Gysel explained that over time the process of new companies joining the group led to an exchange of management talent from Switzerland to other markets and from other markets to Switzerland.

And what remains of Holcim’s Swissness? “One thing that comes through in all the places is that we are able to adapt to different environments respecting the local cultures.”


Business ethicist Ulrich Thielemann sees a clear difference between the smaller “down-to-earth” Swiss companies and the large multinationals based in the country.

“Without shouting it from the rooftops, I think there is a kind of common moderate approach among [smaller] Swiss firms,” he told

“They try to find solutions to the various conflicts between the company’s profitability and the legitimate claims of workers. It is social partnership in action.”

Multinationals, on the other hand, follow an economically radical approach, according to Thielemann. Market belief and logic is the order of the day.

“Those managers mainly come from an environment of economic radicalism in the universities. They get the message the bigger the profits, the better for all.”

Clare O’Dea,

Company, CEO, Nationality

ABB; Joe Hogan; US
Actelion; Jean-Paul Clozel; French
Adecco; Patrick De Maeseneire; Belgian
Credit Suisse; Brady Dougan; US
Holcim; Markus Akermann; Swiss
Julius Bär; Boris Collardi; Swiss
Lonza; Stefan Borgas; German
Nestlé; Paul Bulcke; Belgian
Novartis; Joe Jimenez; US
Richemont; Johann Rupert; South African
Roche; Severin Schwan; Austrian
SGS; Chris Kirk; British
Swatch; Nick Hayek; Swiss
Swiss Life; Bruno Pfister; Swiss
Swiss Re; Stefan Lippe; German
Swisscom; Carsten Schloter; German
Syngenta; Michael Mack; US
Synthes; Michel Orsinger; Swiss
UBS; Oswald Grübel; German
Zurich Financial Services; Martin Senn; Swiss

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR