Fewer foreign bosses sign up to Swiss firms

Foreign power: American Joe Hogan, left, was the CEO of Zurich-based ABB from 2008-2013 Keystone

The number of overseas managers and board members is shrinking at Switzerland’s largest companies, according to an executive head hunter’s survey. But the report’s author downplays the role of last month’s vote to curb the tide of foreign workers.

This content was published on March 3, 2014 - 17:57
Matt Allen,

Switzerland’s largest 100 companies have traditionally employed a higher proportion of top foreign bosses compared to larger countries, such as Germany. In recent years, some 45% of executives have hailed from overseas as Swiss firms struggled to find enough resources in the small Alpine state.

But the proportion of overseas executives dropped to 42% last year, surprising Guido Schilling, who compiles an annual survey on the upper echelons of large companies. At the beginning of this year, the number of foreign executives in the biggest 119 Swiss firms was 362, having fallen to pre-2009 levels.

The main reason that fewer top managers can be enticed from abroad, according to Schilling, is that many economies – particularly in northern Europe – have improved over the last year. There is therefore less incentive for bosses to relocate to the safe haven Swiss market that weathered the financial crisis better than most.

But a creeping anti-foreigner sentiment in Switzerland has played a part, Schilling conceded. “Since 2012, when I tell executives about a great job opportunity, I have been hearing: ‘Do you really think it’s right for me to move to Switzerland? Only a few days ago I read a newspaper headline that said foreigners are not welcome there’,” he told

However, Schilling does not expect such sentiment to increase since February’s vote to restrict the free movement of workers from the European Union, particularly as the government has three years in which to implement changes.

“We must be careful not to misunderstand [the vote] as a signal that we do not want any foreigners,” he said. He added that it was important for the government to respond swiftly to the vote outcome to quell any uncertainty that foreign companies or workers may feel about the future.

Reduced relocation aid?

Schilling also confirmed recent media reports that companies are cutting back on extraordinary expenses paid out to help foreign workers find housing or places in international schools for their children.

But Zurich-based Schmid Relocation, a company that helps overseas employees settle in Switzerland, said that demand for their services is as high as ever.

“We have not felt any difference in demand and we do not expect any change this year as the government has yet to say how it will implement the vote,” Katharina Kägi told

“Some clients have expressed concerns about getting permits for their families to come to Switzerland, but it has not stopped them from coming.”

And despite the fact that the number of top managers coming to Switzerland from abroad slowed last year, Guido Schilling is confident that Switzerland can still attract overseas talent in future.

“The Swiss economy has developed very well over the last few years, which will attract more  businesses to Switzerland,” he told “We are still a very stable and reliable country. We are also going to need to attract a good many foreigners in the country even if we now have to become more persuasive.”

Foreign bosses in Switzerland

The 2014 Schilling report analysed the executive ranks and boardrooms of Switzerland’s 119 largest firms.

It found that the number of executives had fallen from 386 last year to 362 at the start of 2014.

From 2011 to 2013, the proportion of foreign executives remained constant at 45%, but has now dropped to 42%.

The boardroom was less affected by the drain of available overseas talent, with the proportion of foreigners remaining stable at 36%.

Germans remained the largest single nationality represented in the upper echelons of Swiss firms, comprising 32% of all foreign executives and 25% of overseas board members.

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