Running notes from the UBS Women's Leadership Conference in Zurich (29 May).
UBS CEO Peter Wuffli opens the session with "welcome ladies· and ladies". There are about 12% men in the audience of 1500. The theme of the conference is "Changing environment, new markets, adaptable skills".
Patrick Hohmann, CEO of Remei, talks about starting a company 17 years ago to try and make organic cotton for everybody. It was a hobby, and "everyone thought I was crazy". Remei had to organize an entire organic textiles value chain. But the impact of controlling the full chain is significant. For example, producers usually try to gin as many kilos as possible. However, with the full value chain under control, Remei can say that the number of kilos is not important - instead the length of fiber is key, as it is more flexible and higher quality. In the standard textiles value chain the farmer sells his product to someone who "gives him money". At the other end, the textile industry buys the product from a dealer. By restructuring the value chain, the textile factory buys from the farmer themselves, and knows the face and has a relationship with him, and the farmers in turn see where their cotton goes and feel pride in their product. This different approach is cited as a key factor behind why Remei now has 6500 farmers who work for them (picture above).
During the Q&A session, the audience asked Patrick how he deals with the pressure for quarterly results when you clearly need a long-term perspective to make these kinds of projects work? The response came from former Swiss Stock Market head Antoinette Hunziker-Ebneter, now with FormaFutura, who pointed out that the most effective driver will probably come from the end consumer, which in the case of the financial markets is the individual investor. In Switzerland, currently about 3% of investors are focusing on concerns about sustainability. When that number reaches critical mass, about 6-7%, the pressure in the markets will shift from a quarterly to a qualitative perspective, she said.
The keynote speaker was Beatrice Weder di Mauro (picture left) a Swiss woman who's considered one of Germany's economic "Wise Men". Prof. di Mauro opened by stating that the world is in generally good shape (increased market integration, low inflation in both advanced and developing countries despite oil shocks, low volatility across asset classes). In this "flat" world, she looked at the impact of borders. To evaluate if borders are still important, she looked at the volume of trade between Basel and Zurich, (both in Switzerland) (83 km) and Basel and Freiburg, Germany (70 km). Freiburg is closer and should, according to the "gravity theory" of economic trade, be the larger counterparty. However, in economic terms, it seems that the distance is multiplied by 10X because of the border. On that scale, Freiburg is closer to Hamburg, which is hundreds of km away. (I wonder if anyone has done that mash-up on Google Maps). Di Mauro's key conclusions:
- Trade and finance are still determined by geography and border effects are large: the world is bumpy thanks to mountains and oceans
- Structural change and the decline in manufacturing jobs (the shift from "manly work" and an explosion in "geek work"), is mostly due to technological progress, not shifts in trade
- Worldwide income inequality is mainly due to differences between countries, and as a result, economic policies still matter
- Your wages are not set in Shanghai, but in your university: education, education, education.
She was followed by a panel of six, moderated by Susanne Wille. I've picked a couple quotes from each of the speakers to give a flavor of the discussions.
Thomas Bull-Larsen, director of McKinsey Switzerland, on diversity: "It is very clear that we were not as successful with women as we wanted. In fact, we have had several clients who wanted a diverse study team - and we have lost mandates because we had an all-male, white team. "
Heliane Canepa, president and CEO of Nobel Biocare, on success: "You have to want to get to the top. If you always stay focused then you go on the top - it's as simple as that". On the future of teeth: "We have over 80 million people who will die with their teeth in a water glass. What a terrible future." And on being a businesswoman: "As a woman you have advantages as well. You are listened to because you are exotic, you are very good, and of course you shouldn't make mistakes.”
Amity Forrest, partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, on success: "A lot of it just happens when you like what you do, when you have a lot of focus, when you see what you want and go for it - and when you are around people who believe in you. It started with my father who told me I could do whatever I wanted to." On being the first woman partner at PwC: "At the partner's meeting, it was 179 men and I. They would open the sessions saying "Lieben Kollegen, and Amity".
Dmitri Stockton, president and CEO of GE Money, Central and Eastern Europe, on success: "You have to be a driver of change. You have to be in situations where you do things no one has done before. You are only as good as the people around you - and figure out how to get them doing great things." On doing what's comfortable: "I think you miss the essence of life and opportunities if you put a barrier in front of you, if you do what is comfortable for you."
Renate Schubert, director of the Institute for Environmental Decisions at ETH Zurich, on change: "Change starts with the leader." On women and risk: "Is it more difficult for women to take a risk? I observe many women who are willing to take much higher risks than men are - it is a question of information and encouragement."
Franziska Tschudi, CEO of Wicor, on success: "Getting to the top is sheer luck. The other part is to take what is given to you and make the best that you can."