Irish business may benefit from jitters over Swiss EU migration

Enterprise Ireland trade mission to Alpine state attracts 70 Irish companies

There is a cloud of uncertainty over whether international companies in Switzerland will have access to EU markets. EPA/GIAN EHRENZELLER

There is a cloud of uncertainty over whether international companies in Switzerland will have access to EU markets. EPA/GIAN EHRENZELLER

Sat, Jun 14, 2014, 01:01

When Taoiseach Enda Kenny vowed to make Ireland the best small country in the world to do business, we don’t know if he had Switzerland on his radar.

The land-locked alpine country is home to dozens of multinationals at the top of their game: the world’s largest food conglomerate Nestlé, pharmaceutical giants Novartis and Roche, as well as the banking and insurance behemoths UBS, Credit Suisse and Zurich.

But after writing the book on how a small country can punch above its weight in the business big leagues, Switzerland’s next chapter is less certain.

As one of the world’s best places to do business, Switzerland this week attracted 70 Irish companies on an Enterprise Ireland (EI) trade mission. The visit comes amid ongoing uncertainty after February’s referendum backing a cap on inward EU migration.

The shock result, forcing a renegotiation of Swiss bilateral ties with the EU, has left international companies wondering whether further investment here is wise, or whether their money might be better spent in an EU state. One name often mentioned: Ireland.

Expertise overlap

That was the setting for this this week’s EI visit headed by Minister of State for Research and Innovation, Seán Sherlock.

Even a cursory glance reveals ample Swiss-Irish overlap of expertise and potential for knowledge exchange: both countries offer business-friendly (fiscal) environments, have world- class expertise in pharmaceuticals, medical devices and information communications technology (ICT), not to mention strong food and drink sectors. On Wednesday, Sherlock held high-level meetings with executives from two big Swiss players in Ireland, Novartis and Nestlé.

With the latter the Minister underlined the parallels between Swiss conglomerate’s growing food-for-health sector and Ireland’s own Food Harvest 2020 plan to increase milk production by the decade’s end.

“The meeting showed there is a complementarity between their vision globally and where Ireland is pitching itself,” he said. “Aside from Ireland’s current relationship with Nestlé, producing baby formula, there may be new opportunities in the manufacturing process.”

Among the 70 EI clients in Switzerland to learn about doing business there were companies already reaping the harvests.

Like Irish construction company Mercury, which announced a multi-million deal with US company Equinix to extend a Mercury-built data centre in Zürich, following other projects for the company in Dubai, Frankfurt and Geneva.

For Mercury executive director Frank Matthews the project, to begin next month and be completed in December, is another vote of confidence in his company and in Ireland Inc.

Matthews says the key to business success in Switzerland is a targeted approach, flexibility in execution and lots of prior homework on everything from the tax system to labour law.

Steep learning curve

“If you go in thinking you can transpose your Irish model you’ll find yourself on a steep learning curve on everything from certification to sign-off,” he said. “You also need to build relationships with smaller local companies. We would tend not to bring tradespeople out with us but look at the local market. Our Swiss sales pitch was that we can do everything, but we learned quickly that we needed the support of local partners to deliver on that.”

Having local knowledge is an advantage enjoyed by Cork- based cloud storage company MPStor. The firm’s chief executive William Oppermann was born in Ireland to a Swiss family and, after earning experience and key clients in the US, he is now targeting Switzerland and its European neighbours.