Stock markets all over Europe are facing an uncertain future as technology gradually changes the way securities are traded. The SWX Swiss Exchange - under the leadership of Antoinette Hunziker-Ebneter - believes it has a head start.
Measured in terms of turnover, the SWX is the third largest exchange in Europe and the sixth biggest securities trading centre in the world. But the growing trend towards consolidation and mergers among stock markets is leading many analysts to question whether the SWX can survive.
The Paris, Amsterdam and Milan exchanges merged last year to form a new European giant called "Euronext" while London recently found itself the target of an audacious takeover bid by a Swedish company. That bid came hot on the heels of a planned merger between the Frankfurt and London exchanges, which later fell through.
The SWX is trying to plot a different course through the sea of mergers and alliances, and believes it has a key advantage over many of its competitors.
"The SWX owes its success to the fact that it is totally automated from top to bottom," Antoinette Hunziker-Ebneter told swissinfo. "A single mouse-click takes care of trading, settlement and payment and everything in real time."
The SWX was formed in 1995 from the country's three regional stock exchanges in Zurich, Geneva and Basel and was fully automated the following year.
The move led to a substantial increase in liquidity and in 1997, 1,000 new securities were admitted to trading. The Swiss Market Index rose 59 per cent.
Two years later, the exchange launched a new market segment for emerging-growth companies under the name SWX New Market.
This summer, the Swiss exchange plans to use its technological edge to launch a new venture with the British exchange, Tradepoint. The deal will create a platform called "virt-X" - a pan-European exchange for blue chips.
"Major international investment banks want a trading platform where they can trade and settle all pan-European blue chips efficiently in various currencies," says Hunziker-Ebneter. "And they want it to be a proper securities exchange not just an alternative trading system with exchange-like characteristics.
"Virt-X will have its technical centre here in Zurich," she continues. "The SWX Swiss Exchange will take care of all technical aspects of Virt-X but there will be more participants trading on Virt-X than on the SWX at present."
Hunziker-Ebneter is to be Virt-X's chief executive and to that end already splits her working week between London's Canary Wharf and Zurich.
She told swissinfo that the launch of Virt-X will not lead to any changes on the listing side. Stocks listed on the SMI will continue to be listed on the SWX and blue chips from other countries will remain listed on their own exchanges.
Virt-X aims to achieve a 10 per cent share of pan-European blue chip trading within 12 months of its launch. The SWX believes the venture will provide it with a stronger profile in an increasingly competitive market.
"There are too many securities exchanges in Europe," says Hunziker-Ebneter. "In the forthcoming consolidation process, only those exchanges offering the highest liquidity and the most efficient and cost-effective solutions will be able to hold their own."
She adds: "When I say efficient and cost-effective I don't just mean in terms of trading - I'm also talking about functions like clearing and settlement. There is a lot of scope for streamlining back-office operations."
Swiss economic journalists named Hunziker-Ebneter entrepreneur of the year for her leadership at the SWX and the alliance she forged with Tradepoint.
It's an accolade she accepts with typical Swiss modesty. "Naturally I am happy that economic journalists rate me so highly," she smiles.
In the fast moving world of financial markets, Hunziker-Ebneter will need all her business skills to maintain the SWX's reputation as a leading world exchange.
by Michael Hollingdale