Society Is Insufficiently Aware of What SMEs Achieve
Andreas Gerber has been the new President of the Swiss Venture Club for four months. He would like to raise the profile of the entrepreneurs' platform among politicians and encourage SMEs to recognize the opportunities offered by digitalization.
Andreas Gerber, what fascinates you about entrepreneurship?
The huge performance capability and capacity for innovation. Despite the franc shock, the financial crisis, and globalization, the Swiss SME business has remained competitive. For example, the abandonment of the minimum exchange rate meant that, for many Swiss companies, one-quarter of their margin vanished from one day to the next – threatening their very existence. Nevertheless, the companies found a way of dealing with it. I'm impressed by how much risk individuals are prepared to take for their business, and hence for the preservation of jobs, for the economy, and for prosperity.
Others prefer to choose a safe path, with a permanent job and a fixed salary.
Of course. If someone wants to be an entrepreneur in Switzerland, the reaction is often: Are you mad? Just think of your family, your leisure time, the pension fund.
Is society insufficiently aware of what SMEs achieve?
Definitely. I often find that people in our society don't know how and where money is earned – or that it has to be earned at all. Making a profit has become disreputable, but a successful economy is crucial for society. People forget how the economy contributes to the well-being of a society. For me, such relationships are not taught or discussed enough. That is another reason why an organization like the SVC, which builds a bridge and demonstrates the achievements of companies in Switzerland, is needed.
What is the Swiss Venture Club?
We are a platform for SMEs – the members of the SVC are entrepreneurs or company executives. We are not an elite association, but a broad business organization for all companies. The SVC isn't a drinking club either, but a platform that passes on high-quality content and helps people make contacts and share knowledge. And we're committed to economic competition.
You've been President of the Swiss Venture Club since last September. What would you like to bring about there?
I would like to make the SVC even better known and ensure that we gain more members. At the moment, there are 3,000; we are the biggest network for SMEs in Switzerland. But compared with the 300,000 SMEs that exist in Switzerland, there is still huge potential. In addition, I'd like to involve the next generation more, and bring experienced and young entrepreneurs together. And, of course, my role also involves political work: I campaign for SMEs to be given greater attention in political decision-making.
Why is that important?
Because SMEs have far fewer resources compared with large companies, and so are less able to contribute to the ongoing process of legislation and implementation. SMEs are more sensitive as far as costs are concerned, and, to some extent, they lack the clout and professionalism to address issues and to tackle them politically.
To date, the SVC has kept a low profile politically.
That's right, we can be much more active in that regard. We have a partnership with the StrategieDialog21 foundation, under which we present awards for politically motivated ideas at Thun Castle every year. Politicians from all parties take part in the "Wunschschloss" (Castle of Ideas) competition, discussing ideas that come from committed citizens. That's a good start, which we can build on. We need to see to it that the proximity between society, politics, and the economy continues.
Is that one of the reasons why your organization presents the "Prix SVC" in seven regions every two years?
Yes, the regional "Prix SVC" awards are very important for mutual understanding. In my view, the more global the world becomes, the greater the need for entrepreneurs to make contacts and to act at regional level. That is firstly to do with identification with the region, and secondly with the fact that it's easier to work in the long term with people who are nearby.
And what role does the presentation of such an award play for society?
The awards enable people to gain an insight into what local companies do. Something that still surprises me is that there are hundreds of companies in Switzerland that are global market leaders – and nobody knows. We have to tell people about them! Not least, it is also about the image that the economy has in society.
You want to do a lot in the regions. So why is the SVC's national umbrella organization needed?
We need the national association so that we can add weight to political concerns – a Switzerland-wide organization has greater reach. The subject matter of our events is relevant for all regions and members. Of course, there are some topics that are too big to be dealt with regionally: For example, the young entrepreneurs' scene is mainly based at the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne, and the universities of applied sciences. As a national association, the SVC can bring innovators and investors together.
What is the biggest challenge for startups?
The speed with which the business world is developing. Digitalization means that whole business models and value chains are falling apart within a short time and new ones are appearing. Even as a global market leader, you can be finished in under a year – just think of Nokia or Blackberry with their negligible market shares. Young entrepreneurs need to be quicker and more innovative than the competition, be able to adapt very fast, and have great perseverance – there's no alternative.
How do you support SMEs in this huge task?
For us, the transfer of expertise between different entrepreneurs – experienced ones and younger ones – is very important. We achieve this first by means of events with interesting speakers. And second through the network that the SVC provides for its members and that enables entrepreneurs to share ideas in a small group. We try to pass on skills in this way.
What is the relationship between Credit Suisse and the SVC?
The bank is a strategic partner for the SVC and it provides human and financial resources for the SVC. Credit Suisse sees itself as a Bank for Entrepreneurs and is a strategic or financial partner for many SMEs.
You are Head of SME Business Switzerland at Credit Suisse and President of the SVC. Is this dual role logical?
Yes. I've been involved with the SME scene in Switzerland for over 30 years; I worked in Region Mittelland to start with, then in Region Suisse Romande, and finally in Zurich. Now, as Head of SME Business throughout Switzerland, I come across exactly the same representatives as in the SVC. I like to think that I know the SME scene in Switzerland very well – that's important for my role as President of the SVC so that I can understand the challenges and opportunities for entrepreneurs.
But you've never been an entrepreneur yourself?
I wanted to be, but always missed the chance somehow. Of course, you can say that, if you want to be an entrepreneur, then you have to see it through, there's never a right moment. But I'm lucky in that I have quite a lot of room for maneuver entrepreneurially within CS. I find it fascinating to work across the whole range of corporate client business, across all sectors, and with all the representatives – be it the owners, directors, or chief financial officers. This intensive involvement means that I can experience and understand how the world of entrepreneurs works.
Is Switzerland entrepreneur-friendly?
By international standards, yes. Nevertheless, we must make sure that the framework conditions for SMEs do not become more restrictive. If that happens, it will probably be due to the lack of proximity between the worlds of politics and business.
Is the entrepreneurial world still male dominated?
A lot is being done. Nowadays, I see many more women working in business, which is very refreshing and positive. Incidentally, I also find that it's not only the gender distribution that has changed, the age mix among entrepreneurs has too.
What can Swiss companies do better?
They would do well to remain open and pick up trends as quickly as possible. That's easier if we also see the opportunities and not only the disadvantages of digitalization. And it would be good if we could sell ourselves a bit better: The Swiss understatement can be a disadvantage in a competitive market.
Does the same hold true for the SVC?
We too should sell ourselves better and be closer to companies. And so I'm looking forward to guiding our platform further towards digitalization and making ourselves better known amongst politicians and in society generally.
What gives you pause for thought?
I think it's very important that we do not rest on our laurels. Since the 20th century, Switzerland has not had to withstand any major crises. This means that people are easily satisfied to some extent. So I find that, in society, people sometimes lack the hunger and motivation to be fully engaged economically and entrepreneurially. That is the result of our prosperity, which sometimes leads to a certain passivity. Politicians, companies, and the state are jointly responsible for ensuring that the dynamism continues. Otherwise, our privileged situation will be our undoing.