01 OctFour C words and the Swiss. And there’s no chocolate.

Fear not, this is not a recap of the recent John Terry case. This is about competing in the global economy. It is about our local economy in Switzerland and specifically how we compete. Although the story takes place in the financial markets, the issue here is a national one and not specific to the Gnomes of Zurich.

Being “between jobs” does at least mean you can catch-up with some old friends. Last week, I caught up with a local German friend; he is one of many that have moved South in the last decade. He is very smart, very likable and has worked hard and successfully to fit in. There is something of a backlash against the Germans in Switzerland; sadly some of that is the result of the behaviour of Germans still in Germany who are being hard on the Swiss. My friend is upbeat about being in Switzerland and wants to stay. He is really not taking a job from the locals, as is purported by some.

My guest at the lunch that followed the meeting with my German friend is an elder statesman of the local executive search business, Roland Staub. Roland is a frequent and informed user of all the new channels for advertising jobs. In our recent get togethers he had regaled me with detailed stats on how talented candidates from new EU countries were applying for jobs they were seeing in the Internet.

So I asked about his opinion on whether the Germans are taking jobs away from the locals. His answer was illuminating. Neither the Germans, nor any other immigrants are winning jobs in Financial Services by cutting prices, he told me. They are winning by being better competitors. “Imagine today is a Monday. There are four applicants for a search I am working on, one from Bratislava, one from Duesseldorf, one from London and from Winterthur in Switzerland (1/2 an hour from Zurich); rank them for me in terms of ease and speed of getting a first interview arranged,” he challenged me. Now, I thought I could see where this was headed, but I let him go on. “The guy from Bratislava will be on a train this afternoon and here first thing in the morning. Same for the candidate from Frankfurt and the guy from London will hop on a plane. The Swiss guy will tell me his diary is full for this week and for next week he will suck wind through his front teeth, commenting how difficult things are looking, and then ask me when I am next coming Winterthur!”

Over the 23 years I have spent in Switzerland, a phrase I have often heard said of the locals is: “The Swiss get up early and wake up late!” Roland’s anecdote was the perfect practical proof; you have to work hard to compete in today’s global economy. Meanwhile, my German friend had already sent out a couple of e-mails as follow-up to the meeting we had just 90 minutes ago.

Several years ago, following one of the many re-organisations at Credit Suisse, with Mssrs. Gruebel & Mack at the helm, I found myself in a conversation with the head of private banking operations, Romeo Lacher. At one point, he had changed subjects on me: “You are an Anglo-Saxon, you have to help me with something. The new Group Exec board at CS, there are eight of them and two of us. Eight Investment Bankers. But, we in Switzerland have 1/2 the profits and most of the assets. How is this correct?” He asked with some sign of frustration. I actually had an answer for this: “Well, I think it comes down to the four C’s: Change, Competition and Creativity, you (the Swiss) are not very good at those and you spend too long on Consensus.” He was somewhat shocked at my answer; perhaps he meant the question rhetorically, perhaps he was shocked by the structured answer or maybe he found my answer rude.

This is not just a phenomenon in the banks. With two teenaged kids, we have the delights of dentist and orthodontist trips. I have never heard of a poor dentist in Switzerland and I could sooner get to the top of the season ticket waiting list at Anfield than get a quick appointment for one of the kids with the orthodontist. Last week, we had to discuss a brace for my young daughter. Best to book six months in advance, I was told. No surprise there, what about timing I asked, thinking about how we fit this to our working schedules and my daughter’s school schedule. “Well we work on Mondays, Wednesday and Thursday. But we prefer not to do Monday and it is best for us if you can do mornings on either Wednesday or Thursday.” Now this is a professional service provider, who is going to bill us for several thousand francs of work. All I am hearing about is what is easiest for them. I wish I could have voted with both my feet and my wallet; sadly, there are no local alternatives. We need to import some German dentists.

Lessons Learned: In truth, with the passage of time, I think I had it wrong about my four C’s. I was wrong about Creativity; my fellow Swiss have more talent than my remark gave them credit for. There are though still four C’s, and my lunch with my friend Roland has helped me sharpen my thinking. We are not good at either Change or Competition, we are too Comfortable and we spend too long on Consensus.

On the subject of the Germans in general, we need to compete with them for jobs and we also need to compete with them in the political arena. We have had to accept a lousy deal on overfly rights for planes landing at our main airport and we are about to have a lousy tax treaty imposed on us.

In the great British tradition of having a view about nations and a different view on the individuals from that country, my take on the individual Germans I am fortunate enough to be able to call my friends; I am glad to have you as friends, glad to have you here, glad you like our lower taxes and better quality of life and glad if you stay.

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