Trade with the USA is more important than ever for our economy. Now there's a historic chance of a free trade agreement.
Economic relations between Switzerland and the USA are a brilliant success story. I have witnessed the strong growth of these links throughout my professional career. But as impressive as the statistics relating to trade and direct investment may be, business relationships ultimately depend on human contact. The American Swiss Foundation does a lot to bring Swiss people and Americans together. The Foundation has organised the Young Leaders Conference every year since 1980: around 25 young Americans, mainly from the public sector but also from the private sector, come to Switzerland to meet 25 young representatives of Swiss companies and get to know our country. The programme's alumni network comprises around 1200 people, and is probably the only one of its kind in the world.
The founder of the Young Leaders Conference was Faith Whittlesey, former US Ambassador to Switzerland, who unfortunately passed away this year. She used her incredible initiative, intelligence, precision and human intuition to make the American Swiss Foundation what it is today. She knew all the world and his wife, and was never slow to pick up the phone.
This year, the company Artemis/Franke designed the programme for the visit week. Our primary focus was on medium-sized companies with initiative and energy, such as Autoneum, Bucherer, Feintool, Forbo, Gübelin, Schindler, Sika, Victorinox, and, of course, Artemis/Franke. The visits made a huge impression on the American participants. They experienced how our country runs on both a political and economic level: the dual training system, in particular, impressed them. I am sure most of them travelled to the USA at the end of the week as friends of Switzerland - with a Victorinox knife in their suitcase.
I've had links to the United States for four decades. When I was 32, I went to Philadelphia after I’d had a fight with my father. I was rather friendly with a partner at the investment bank Salomon Brothers. He told me: "If you want to become an investment banker, you first have to learn to dress properly and speak perfect English, and you need to know more about finance". American investment bankers have a somewhat overloaded style, with their golden cufflinks and all the rest. He gave me a reference for the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where I completed a degree in Management. After graduating, I took a job at the Philadelphia National Bank, which was one of the oldest financial institutions in the USA at the time.
My starting salary was 700 US dollars and the rent for my room was 400 US dollars. Back then, a hamburger cost about three dollars. You couldn't really make any big strides forward. Fortunately, I soon enjoyed my first success: I was assigned to the American branch of a Basel-based chemical company. The CFO was Swiss and didn't like American bankers. He borrowed $50 million from us, which would be worth a lot more today. So, they doubled my salary. I was also involved in helping other European companies, such as Ikea, move over to the USA.
While working in Philadelphia, I met a young lawyer there, who later became Ambassador Faith Whittlesey. We stayed in touch ever since. Last time we met, here in Aarburg a year ago, she said, "I’m getting a little bit older." She already knew that she didn't have long left to live.
After I returned to Switzerland, I took over Franke in 1989. The US business was still relatively small at that time. Now we're quite a bit bigger in the USA. We supply fast food chains such as McDonalds, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy's and Seven-Eleven with industrial kitchens. As a manufacturer of coffee machines, we are also benefiting greatly from the coffee boom.
Value that can't be measured
I am optimistic about the future of the USA, which is why we are expanding our investments in the country. I like the economic policy pursued by Trump's government. At long last, we've got a politician who’s a businessman, someone who's not all talk! It's important for the US economy that he's curbing Chinese involvement. Although wages in China have risen many times over in recent years, their prices on the global market have remained almost the same. This means that Chinese exports are heavily subsidised. Trump is reacting to this unbalanced ratio.
Trump's government's focus on the economy has also landed in Bern. US Ambassador Edward T. McMullen is an excellent point of contact for Swiss companies, as I have experienced several times. As an entrepreneur operating in both countries, I very much welcome the preliminary talks regarding a free trade agreement between Switzerland and the USA. Like the American Swiss Foundation, an agreement of this nature would have the value of bringing together businesspeople from both sides: a value that can't be measured. Switzerland shouldn't drag its heels here; it needs to seize this opportunity.
The entrepreneur Michael Pieper is the owner of Artemis Holding, which also includes Franke. He has been an honorary citizen of the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the USA, since 1983.
Transcribed by Florian Schwab.