ABB: a perennial pioneer

2016-10-24 - Speech by Swiss Federal President Johann N. Schneider-Ammann, Head of the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research (EAER)
Mr. Voser,

Mr. Spiesshofer,
Board and management members,
Government Councillors,
National Councillor,
Ladies and gentlemen:

A hundred and twenty-five years of ABB. That’s a hundred and twenty-five years of innovation. A hundred and twenty-five years of growing and evolving into a global concern. It’s a phenomenal achievement. And when I look out into this room, I’m sure I see many times as many years of high-tech expertise. Or, to put it another way: I am talking today to a “powerhouse of pioneering”.

I feel very much at home here with you this evening. Not least because I earned my very first Swiss francs with what was then Brown Boveri (BBC), while I was studying for my science degree. And I have very happy memories of those times.

Today, as our country’s President, it makes me very proud that this global corporation, with a hundred and thirty-five thousand employees in more than a hundred countries all over the world, has stayed loyal to Switzerland for all those years, and still has its head office here.

Not only that. ABB is a company that offers jobs and – with them – opportunities for many, many people. A company that, with its pioneering achievements, has been contributing to Switzerland’s health and wealth for the last century-and-a-quarter. For that I offer you my warmest congratulations. And our deepest thanks.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I don’t plan to go through the whole ABB story with you. But I do want to remind you of just a few of the many highlights you have had along the way. Like the first standard-gauge electric locomotive and the first steam turbine in Europe, and later the first industrial robot –not to mention your pioneering achievements in the power transmission field. ABB – and BBC before it –has always been ahead of its time. My compliments on this. They won’t be the last I offer you this evening. After all, that’s really why I’m here: to extend my congratulations and share your celebrations.

But I hope you will allow me to “fly the Swiss flag” a little, too. Because as well as all the smart and innovative minds that you’ve had down the decades, it’s also its Switzerland home that has helped ABB to be such a true pioneer in so many different fields. It was back in 1878, when Charles Brown, the father of one of your founders, was winning the Gold Medal at the World’s Fair in Paris for his valve-fitted steam engine, that Switzerland passed its first Federal Factories Act.

The years that followed were not easy ones in industrial relations terms. But those conflicts did give us the social partnership that we still enjoy today. A partnership that is, I believe –together with a liberal employment market and an excellent educational system –one of the three pillars of a successful economy.

And successful Switzerland is. In the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Competitiveness Index, Switzerland was the clear Number One –for the eighth year in a row. ABB’s commitment to Switzerland shows that you know, too: Switzerland is an excellent place to make products and do business.

Our Federal Council appreciates that these are tough times for you. The strength of the dollar and the franc and the fragile global economy are all posing problems. You’re feeling the low oil prices, too, which are prompting companies to put off investing in new technologies. And you have already launched an ambitious cost-cutting programme in response to these trends.

Yet: despite the relatively high salary and production costs, you have around a thousand more people working for ABB here in Switzerland than you had ten years ago. As a former engineer and a former entrepreneur, that’s a source of immense pleasure to me.

And it brings me to my second compliment to ABB here tonight: for being such a strong member of SWISSMEM. And for representing and defending not just your own corporate interests but the interests of the entire engineering, electrical and metal industry.

It’s vital work. Because it’s thanks to the efforts of your sector, and our open employment market, that industry still accounts for around 20 per cent of the Swiss economy. (In France, by comparison, it’s only some 13 per cent.)

And here comes my third compliment:

Thank you for maintaining such a model apprentice training programme. Just how good it is was shown last year, in a survey by Swiss Radio and TV. The survey revealed that ABB is the only SMI company that still keeps to what used to be the accepted training rule-of-thumb, of having more than six apprentices for every hundred employees.

You carry on training your people, too. So when it comes to my insistence –as our Swiss Minister of Education –on “lifelong learning”, ABB clearly ticks the box!

Ladies and gentlemen,

ABB and Switzerland. They’ve been a good team for a hundred and twenty-five years. And I’m convinced they can be an equally good team for the next hundred and twenty-five.

We are all facing a new industrial revolution right now. Digitization is here. And it will continue to transform the employment market and the industry landscape, even more radically than it has already. Pioneering is needed today more than ever. And once again, ABB is ahead of its time.

For the Internet of Things, Services and People, you were already presenting solutions last year in Hanover at the world’s biggest industry fair. You’ve developed the first collaborative robot. And I’m counting on you for many more such innovations as we all embark on Industry 4.0. It’s a pleasure to hear that you are going to significantly increase investment in this sector, with strategic partnerships, new solutions and news structures.

I am delighted to have such a like-minded companion here in Ulrich Spiesshofer. He, like me, sees digitization not as a threat but as a wonderful opportunity. He even described it, in a recent newspaper interview, as a “chance of the century for Switzerland, if it plays smart”.

So: let’s play smart! What does that mean? It means there are three things that we –both the political and the business world –all need to do:
First, we need to approach this Fourth Industrial Revolution not with fear and doubt but with boldness and confidence. We’ve managed the first three. And they’ve given us affluence and jobs –far more than they ever destroyed.

Secondly, we need to recognize that education is essential. Our dual educational system here in Switzerland is a clear success. But we need to invest in further education, too. And new skills are needed: as the workstation replaces the workbench, engineers and programmers are becoming dying breeds.

And thirdly we need to give ourselves a state that business and its companies can count on. We need to conduct politics that permits as much as possible and prohibits as little as possible. We need to ease the administrative pressures. And we need to do so not tentatively some time in the future, but decisively, now.

If we “play smart”, we will give ourselves a state that allows as much scope and freedom as possible, a liberal employment market and an excellent educational system. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the best possible playing field for companies to devise, develop and distribute the innovative products and services that tomorrow’s markets will need.

My department and I work day in, day out to provide that playing field.

And my message to you, Mr. Voser and Mr. Spiesshofer, is: keep playing here for the next hundred and twenty-five years! Switzerland is the most competitive country in the world! Keep creating jobs here, and giving our people great prospects and perspectives. Keep as innovative as you’ve always been, and keep pioneering –for the sake of your company, and for the sake of our country.

Congratulations again on your first century-and-a-quarter, and on its countless achievements. We look forward to many more years of a successful ABB in a successful Switzerland.

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