The Insider View: Zurich

Published: 07 May 2014

We examine how business is conducted in cities around the world, with local experts acting as guides

Commercial environment

Switzerland has for many years enjoyed its status as one of the world’s leading finance centres. Many big financial institutions are based here, alongside the country’s own international banks. 

Sophia Steiger FCMA, CGMA, head of IT and real-estate finance at Crédit Suisse, describes the nation’s economic prospects as “excellent”, reporting that an increasing number of international companies are moving to Switzerland to benefit from low interest rates and a relatively favourable taxation regime for business.

Alexander Borissov ACMA, CGMA, risk and compliance officer at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, shares Steiger’s view. He says that the Swiss economy suffered less from the past economic downturn than most of its neighbours in Europe.

Its GDP growth (recorded at 1.7 per cent last year) remains comparatively strong.

“As well as imposing low corporation tax, low income tax and low social-security contributions, Switzerland continues to attract talent and investment from other countries,” Borissov says.

Management culture

“Benefiting from the fact that Switzerland has four official languages, Zurich attracts executives and specialists from all over the world,” Borissov says.

“In this cross-cultural environment, people have learnt to be tolerant and respectful of each other’s views, values and sensitivities.”

Derek Smith ACMA, CGMA, managing director at UBS, agrees that the city’s business culture is extremely cosmopolitan. “There are many multinationals with a substantial presence here,” he says. “They generally have a meritocratic approach and look for the best person for the job.”

Angelika Sidler, an executive coach at Zurich-based consultancy LivingCorp, says that, although the city is an international commercial centre, it is still influenced strongly by Swiss cultural traditions.

“People have clear ideas of how business is to be conducted, so correct behaviour, modesty and politeness are considered very important here,” she says. “They value their business rules and prefer to follow common, predictable procedures. It also takes time for people to build relationships, so don’t expect the Swiss to do small talk at the beginning of a business meeting or chat about their private lives. They would rather come straight to the agenda.”

Sidler continues: “Because the Swiss like being friendly, they generally avoid conflict. As an American executive observed to me during a recent coaching conversation: ‘They are somehow proud of their achievements, but not necessarily of themselves. They prefer harmony and can sometimes show resistance to pressure from outside.’ Therefore, in conversations you should not directly point out individuals’ mistakes or refer to potential areas of conflict. Instead, it’s better to express your concerns indirectly.”

Doing business

“Networking is an essential activity in Zurich, as so much of what we do here is connected,” Steiger says. “Taking the time to meet new people and keep up with what is happening is even more important in such a tightly knit community. Flexibility is also crucial, because Switzerland is a tapestry of cultures and everyone bends a bit to get along, whether that means starting work early or having a proper lunch. All these things go a long way to forming a united culture.”

Having experienced decades of political and economic stability, some local business leaders may have become less impulsive than their European neighbours, according to Borissov. “As a result, they may require more time to consider the pros and cons of a deal before coming to a decision. You have to factor this into the equation if you want to build a successful business relationship here.”

He continues: “One can judge just how stable the Swiss economy is by glancing at the years when some of the coins that are currently in circulation were minted. Forget about the 1950s – a shop recently gave me a 1912 coin as change that is still legal tender. Likewise, the business solutions one proposes must have a solid foundation and be suitable for the long term in order to receive the approval of local decision-makers.”

Zurich does have a long-hours culture, warns Smith, who observes that people who spend more energy on getting work done than they do on discussing it will earn a lot of respect in the city.

“People start early here – arriving after 8am would be considered unusual,” he says. “In general, the Swiss are very action-orientated. They like people who talk a little less and deliver a little more.”

Switzerland by numbers

GDP (purchasing-power parity) in 2013: $370bn

Switzerland is the world’s 37th largest economy

GDP growth in 2013: 1.7%

Population: 8.1 million

Unemployment in 2013: 2.9%

Source: CIA World Factbook

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