Start-up companies help green the Swiss economy

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Windmills Though not making it into the headlines often, small and medium sized enterprises are nonetheless the mainstay of the Swiss economy. As many as 99.6 % of all companies are small or medium sized (SME) enterprises and almost 67 % of the workforce is employed in companies with fewer than 250 employees. In fact, a 2005 Census revealed that 2.1 million people worked in a SME and 26% of those worked in micro-enterprises with fewer than 10 employees. Compared to this, large enterprises “only” occupied 1.03 million people.

Understanding the crucial importance of the sector, the Swiss Government  adopted a policy in 2008 to help and assist the SMEs and since then they have been a priority for the federal government. The policy has included helping to lessen the bureaucratic burden which always is a major concern to start-ups, providing easier access to financing and finally, establishing a body called “The SME Forum” as an expert committee of professionals outside of government to help protect and promote the interests of SMEs.

 SMEs play a vital role in any economy, not just because they create the vast majority of jobs and inject fresh ideas into it thus bringing forward innovation which can be missed by the sector dominating companies. Even more importantly, they are adept at filling in the gaps and overcoming the shortcomings of any economic structure as most of them are niche oriented. This special characteristic emanates from the fact that in order to successfully launch a company, one needs to be clear not just on the business model, but most importantly, if there is a market at all for what is being offered.  Therefore, a vibrant and strong SME sector is crucial to keep the economy dynamic and open to change which makes it easier for the economy to adapt  when transformations caused by the introduction of new technologies or just new agendas emerge.

Though the global financial crisis has stifled economic growth in the greater economy, it is creating opportunities too as the overall global agenda is changing. As there has been an increased focus on the environment over the last 10 years, Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability have become the all influencing agendas of the modern business community. This has made it possible for numerous companies to start-up as larger, well-established companies  have often had difficulties in adapting to the new tides and therefore need or prefer to hire consultants to help develop new strategies and policies.

One such company is Schlaepfer Associates which GBNews met with during a conference on Business Ethics and Sustainability in Zurich. The company is run by Andreas Schläpfer and we asked him a few questions about his experiences and background:

What service does your company deliver?
We provide advice on how to improve companies’ environmental performance in a practical manner. We develop purchasing criteria looking at the environmental and social qualities of a product or material, help to improve products, start a monitoring and reporting process on Environmental Management, provide guidance and practical solutions for communications, plan and run employee programs, coach the ISO 14001 certification process, coach multi-stakeholder processes with e.g. companies, cities and energy providers, facilitate podium discussions, etc.

How did you get the idea to start your own company?
When I started my studies in the early 90s as a Landscape Architect, I already had the idea of running my own office one day. In 2009, I finally decided not to apply for another job, but to follow my passion: supporting and coaching companies and helping to develop processes in companies for them to become more environmentally friendly in their everyday activities.  In January 2010 I started my own company. Before, I was Managing Director of an SME in the construction sector (140 employess) from 2007 to 2010. From 1997 to 2010, I was Head of Internal Environmental Management for Swiss Re’s internal operations worldwide. That’s where I gained my experience in practising environmental management as we started from scratch in Switzerland and ended up managing over 25 locations worldwide.

What is your background?
I have a mixed educational background with a Bachelor’s degree in Landscape Architecture (UA Rapperswil), a Bachelor’s in Business Administration (UA Zurich) and finally an MSc in Responsibility & Business Practice (University of Bath, UK).

When you started your company, what was the biggest obstacle you needed to overcome?
The biggest obstacle was to get my first client as I started from scratch. I was not used to doing the acquisition work so that was a huge challenge for me. Initially, I did it wrong. I was clear about my business concept and tried to sell it constantly. But during meetings with potential clients, I forgot to listen to the client and enquire about his needs. When I realised this fact, I was more relaxed and able to concentrate on the client needs and was able to formulate my proposal.

Schlaepfer Associates

What has been the biggest success for you personally and professionally?
One of my successes was to become a Director at Swiss Re. I started as an intern with a limited contract in 1997. I am also proud to run my own office and of being able to attract well known companies as my clients

How is your company different from other consultancies?
I act in a niche as a small company. One Unique Selling Proposition (USP) is that my clients deal only with me and not with a project manager and another junior project manager. I am responsible from the beginning to the end and also do the work in between. Another USP is my strong focus on practical solutions to make businesses operate in a more environmentally responsible manner. I like producing strategies and concepts but the reality is different. The real challenge is implementing the strategies and changing the processes. That is my real USP.

What advice would you give to somebody who is thinking about starting a company?
Do only things and jobs you are passionate about, be honest to your client in every sense and never give up – failure is not an option. 

Among the references on Schaepfler Associates website you can find not only giants like ISS and Triumph, but also less well-known companies such as LGT – Financial Services and Comet AG.

The city of Geneva offers several kinds of support for start-ups and they can be viewed at Gichet PME-PMI.
photo credit: Kevin Dooley via

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