“Trust is trust”

Be it on the mountain or in professional life, trust is a must for economie­suisse president Heinz Karrer. In terms of the business world, he views trust as a key contributing factor to the success of any organisation. Karrer believes that people’s trust in our economy, our political system, and the future of Switzerland is thoroughly intact.

Text: Roberto Stefàno | Photos: Markus Bertschi | Magazine: Trust in society – September 2019

As an enthusiastic alpinist, what role does trust play when you’re on the mountain?

It’s absolutely crucial. For years and years I’ve been climbing our majestic peaks and going on high alpine tours – always accompanied by the same two mountain guides. We know each other extremely well by now. I have trust in their abilities, and they in mine.

How does this kind of trust differ from the trust placed in you as president of economiesuisse?

Actually, not at all – trust is trust. People basically go on the assumption that they can rely on someone. For example, when I was elected president of economiesuisse, the member organisations entrusted me to
re­present their economic policy concerns in the best possible way.

How important is it that you can really sense the trust of those members?

Very. Because without trust, you can’t get anything done. That’s why I work hard to earn it and seek dialogue with others. This is particularly important when it comes to conflict situations.

And especially since there’s never a lack of criticism out there – for instance, from opponents or the media.

Criticism comes with the territory when you’re the chief proponent of a federation like economiesuisse. If you can’t handle it, you’re in the wrong job. What’s much more important is to take that criticism seriously and include the valid points in future decision-making processes.

How do you manage to interact with the membership of the federation? After all, you represent the interests of almost 100,000 Swiss companies.

That’s mostly accomplished by 100 or so industry associations and 20 regional chambers of commerce. When we’re addressing an economic policy proposal, the exchange first takes place in working groups. Later, the matter goes in front of the commissions and executive committees. It’s crucial that all affected members are involved in the process to the best possible extent and that conflicts are thrashed out in a timely manner. Only through mutual understanding can a clear majority be achieved in cases of disagreement. More than 90 per cent of the time, we find an amicable solution – despite the huge number of members and their heterogeneity.

“Even in cases of differing viewpoints, mutual understanding is of tremendous importance.”

… even though the interests of those companies can differ widely in certain instances?

Yes. One reason for this is that a proposed parliamentary bill often doesn’t affect all sectors to the same extent. The companies that are impacted directly then need to get more deeply involved, while those from unrelated sectors hold back. But there are also other situations. Take for example the Swissness bill: there, members’ opinions and attitudes diverged for quite understandable reasons. What I mean is, it’s simply not reasonable to treat a food product the very same way as a machine or a watch when it comes to stipulating the parameters of Swissness.

Heinz Karrer (1959) has been president of Switzerland’s industry and commerce umbrella federation economiesuisse since 2013. He was previously CEO of energy services group Axpo for 12 years. He started his career in the sporting goods industry before joining Ringier and later Swisscom in senior executive positions. Karrer studied economics at the University of St. Gallen for two years. In earlier years, as a handball player, he made his way into the Swiss national team and with it to the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. He is married in second marriage and the father of three adult sons.

What are Switzerland’s three greatest challenges at present?

First and foremost is to maintain a stable relationship with the European Union. This revolves around the bilateral treaties which, at the behest of the EU, are now to be couched in a framework agreement that achieves greater legal certainty for all parties involved. The latter pact is key to Switzerland’s ability to reinforce its existing relationship with the EU and pave the way for future bilateral negotiations. This issue is essentially undisputed in the business community, but there are still a number of domestic and foreign policy matters to be debated before it can be put to a popular vote. Another challenge is the climate topic. So far, the economy has clearly exceeded the goals set for CO2 emissions. An important reason for this were the target agreements reached with the federal government, which were, however, applicable only to companies of a certain size. In the new CO2 Act, we want all companies to be in a position to take that route. And thirdly, we need to create a sustainable social security substrate. The AHV and BVG pension funds have to be stabilised and financed in a way that accounts for future demographic developments.

As to your first point, the current relationship between Switzerland and the EU doesn’t appear to be a very trusting one, does it?

I wouldn’t go that far. The big question of course is where the majority of Swiss voters stand in terms of the bilateral agreements. Polls are showing clear support amongst the populace for the bilateral path, even though the EU is viewed critically and Switzerland’s self-determination is sacrosanct. This makes it all the more important that light be shed on the opportunities as well as the potential threats, and that the relationship with the EU be discussed soberly, as important votes will soon be held.

Is the business community the right messenger here? After all, the public’s trust in captains of industry also seems to be rather sketchy these days.

Not always do the loudest critics reflect the actual opinion of the broad public. According to surveys, people’s trust in the business community was quite high until the financial crisis struck. After that, it suffered a bit, but now the readings are even higher than they were before the 2008–2009 crisis.

How then do you explain the defeat of Tax Proposal 17?

According to a follow-up analysis, voters were of the opinion that the proposal wasn’t sufficiently balanced. But to speak of fundamental mistrust is wrong. For example, a recent study by the ETH Zurich on the public’s confidence in our institutions showed the highest reading since the survey was initiated in 1992.

Digitalisation is currently the source of additional uncertainty amongst the population. What’s your take on this?

Basically, change is part of life. What’s new, however, is the tremendous speed at which these changes are taking place. Just think of the smartphone and how it’s turned our lives upside down. Many people wonder where this all will end up. Quite often, though, these jitters are simply due to a lack of insight or the will and ability to deal with the topic.

How are you responding to that?

We’ve published a variety of articles on digitalisation and hold events to discuss the issue with the public. Digitalisation offers incredible opportunities, but it is understandably also a source of concern. For example, permanent, lifelong training is necessary to keep pace with these developments, but how do people of a somewhat advanced age manage to change their job or retrain? So digitalisation raises many economic and sociopolitical questions.

“Today, it is much more difficult to make one’s voice heard.”

Here, economiesuisse could once again pave the way – as it has frequently done quite successfully in the past. There’s even talk of an eighth Federal Council member …

That’s somewhat of a myth: if we take the voting results as a benchmark, we win nine out of ten ballots relating to economic policy. This was no different 20 or 30 years ago. But what does hold true is the fact that, today, it is much more difficult to make one’s voice heard. One of the reasons is that our public institutions have lost some of their shine, and a constantly growing number of organisations and people are voicing their opinions for all to hear. Social media have made this easier than ever before.

Trust that’s been built up over years can quickly be demolished. How important is risk management at economiesuisse?

We take two approaches in this regard: the one is aimed at the medium to long term with the intent of keeping an open eye and ear out for social issues that subliminally concern the population. We need to wrap our heads around these trends and keep them in mind when dealing with and questioning economic policy issues. In the short term, communication is what’s called for. How do we communicate? How do we react to a disparaging report? That’s our daily work. And good preparation is necessary here because, as you say, trust is indeed quickly lost.

For example, when it comes to excessive manager pay.

Excessive salaries are a matter regulated in the Compensation Ordinance enacted following the 2013 popular vote. As a result, shareholders now bear more responsibility, which in turn has led to increased transparency and significantly fewer executive pay aberrations. But what’s important here is that the state doesn’t get involved in wage policy.

Nevertheless, a scandal at one com­pany quickly besmirches the entire economy and, by definition, economiesuisse as well.

That’s correct, but by no means justified. Because then, 500,000 businesses in Switzerland are unfairly painted with the same brush. Day in, day out, those com­panies do an excellent job, something
for which Switzerland has repeatedly gained international acclaim.

What gives you confidence that this will continue to be the case in future years?

This question has undoubtedly been asked countless times in the past decades, given that we’ve somehow always managed to keep on doing so well. For whatever reason, Switzerland has regularly succeeded in being one of the most innovative and competi­tive countries in the world. Trust plays a major role here: Switzerland and its com­panies stand for reliability, high quality, predictability and legal certainty. These are our success factors, and I’m confident ,that we can continue to benefit from them in the future.

economiesuisse represents the interests of around 100,000 companies from all sectors and regions of Switzerland, firms which collectively provide jobs for around two million people. As an umbrella federation, economie­suisse is the link between business, politics and society. Its efforts are aimed at fostering optimal conditions for Swiss companies – from SMEs to large corporations. The federation advocates liberal concepts such as personal responsibility, free trade and less state intervention. In the year 2000, economiesuisse became the successor organisation to the Swiss Trade and Industry Association (Vorort).


Heinz Karrer – up close and personal

The view from this summit impressed me the most.
All 4,000ers in Switzerland are splendid. But I was particularly impressed by the view from the Breithorn in Zermatt. There, I met the famous mountain guide Ulrich Inderbinen on a stunningly beautiful day. He led me to a vantage point with a panorama that extended all the way to the Pyrenees on the horizon. I couldn’t believe this at first – but it was true.

Which peak would you still like to surmount?
Piz Badile. It’s a beautiful climbing mountain, but was difficult to access recently because of a rockslide.

And even higher mountains abroad?
I climbed 6,000ers in the Andes and last year one in Georgia that was over 5,000 metres. But I have no ambition at all to try an 8,000er.

So you’re not seeking even higher highs?
In the past, sheer altitude was more important to me. Today, I find less lofty but more difficult climbing routes just as interesting.

A personal goal that you’d like to achieve before the year is out?
Taking as many beautiful mountain tours as possible.

How and where do you recharge your batteries?
Above all in nature, in combination with physical activity: hiking, mountain and rock climbing, jogging, skiing or ski touring.

Your favourite holiday destination?
We spend a lot of time in Mürren in the Bernese Alps where we have an apartment. It’s also a frequent meeting point for the entire family.

Where do you prefer to meet the one or the other Federal Council member?
On the slopes while skiing with former Federal Councillor Adolf Ogi. Otherwise, most meetings take place in the Federal Councillors’ own offices in Bern.

What’s currently at the top of your shopping list?
I really like to read. Frequently, I stop by a bookshop on the spur of the moment and simply purchase whatever looks interesting. That’ll likely be the case again soon. And oh, I also need some new carabiners.

Which book rests on your bedside table right now?
I was recently in the Bernese Jura and visited the Camille Bloch chocolate factory. Company boss Daniel Bloch presented me with his book, which I’ve finished reading in the meantime.

Which film hero do you find the most compelling?
For me, Gandhi was the most impressive personality in recent history – perhaps together with Nelson Mandela.

What would you like to pass along to our readers?
I hope that they will stand up for a successful and innovative Swiss economy – because it is the very foundation for the prosperity of our country.