In a span of a few weeks earlier this year, Swiss companies made investments in Georgia that dwarf the state’s entire stock of realized investment from China, a nation of more than a billion people and the world’s second largest economy.
Switzerland, in fact, has fewer people than Georgia, but it’s that small market and its fidelity to innovation and quality that drive its position as the sixth largest investing nation in the U.S., rivaling much larger countries like Germany and the United Kingdom.
“We’re punching above our weight, and we’re happy to do this,” said Peter Zimmerli, consul general of Switzerland in Atlanta, who was featured in Global Atlanta’s June Consular Conversation, a monthly luncheon interview at Miller & Martin PLLC’s Midtown office.
More striking than the overall position is that Swiss companies from Novartis to Nestle help the country top the charts in research and development investment in the United States.
“Most of our big companies do their research and development work in the United States. This shows the interest of our economy here in this market,” Mr. Zimmerli said.
The Georgia Department of Economic Development counts more than 100 Swiss-owned facilities in this state alone, including established factories by Interoll, Habasit, Alcon and newer ones by Corvaglia and Nestle’s Purina. SITA, the airport technology company, is here, as are insurance players like Swiss Re.
Large companies understand how invest abroad, but it’s the small and medium sized companies — the “tissue” of the Swiss economy — that the consulate works to introduce to opportunities here in the South, where Mr. Zimmerli covers 11 states home to at least 16,000 Swiss citizens (at least those registered with the consulate).
With “one of every two Swiss francs earned abroad,” such connections are vitally important, especially given that few Swiss firms can parse out the differences in American states, and few Americans understand the nuances between various Swiss cantons. Somewhat lost amid the stereotypes of cheese, chocolate, trains and watches is the depth of diversity in a country of four official languages and a history of embracing multilateralism.
Mr. Zimmerli himself grew up in the canton of Argau, near the German border, and while he enjoyed the independence of a quaint upbringing, he always felt drawn to “go beyond.”
He learned English and French, traveled, then worked for an American multinational in Geneva. Aspiring for a deeper global experience, he joined the foreign service, starting a more than 30-year career that has taken him to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Brazil (twice) and Singapore, along with European postings. He now speaks German, French, English, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish.
He came to Atlanta from a posting in the economic affairs division, timely considering how complex the world is becoming to navigate, especially on the trade side.
Mr. Zimmerli said Switzerland was becoming concerned not only with U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum, but also with the potential retaliation by the European Union, which would raise both prices and uncertainty in both of its largest partner markets. That said, Swiss companies have a precedent for surviving external threats. They’re able to weather unfavorable exchanges rates by focusing on products at the high end of most markets, which tend to be less price sensitive, Mr. Zimmerli said.
A few weeks after Mr. Zimmerli spoke, Switzerland initiated a case against the U.S. at the World Trade Organization over “unjustified” steel tariffs that threaten up to $80 million in Swiss steel exports to the U.S.
Switzerland is one of eight countries set to join a meeting in Ottawa in October to discuss potential reforms to the WTO, incidentally based in Geneva, which has been targeted by President Donald Trump as unfair to U.S. interests.
It’s unclear what effect that a trade war will have on Swiss investment into Georgia, but any significant decline could impact jobs that tend to be concentrated in the impactful manufacturing sector.
The Swiss government estimates that in Georgia alone, Swiss investment supports more than 12,000 jobs. Add to that the impact of Georgia exports of goods and services to the country, and it jumps to 18,767.
Along with other countries like Germany, Switzerland is trying to better apply its model of apprenticeship to the U.S., where working in manufacturing isn’t always seen as the most prestigious career choice.
“In Europe, we don’t think about this as a stigma, but this takes some time. Our apprenticeship system goes back to the 13th and 14th centuries,” Mr. Zimmerli said, only partly joking. He noted that the head of Swiss bank UBS (which also has an Atlanta office) and many other high-level executives started as apprentices. (In Switzerland, apprenticeships are undertaken in the service sector as well as in the trades.)
In Georgia, meanwhile, Mr. Zimmerli has been engaging in listening sessions to gauge CEOs of Swiss firms operating in the state. The consulate is complemented in Atlanta by the Swiss Business Hub, which helps Swiss firms navigate the U.S. market and American firms set up operations in Switzerland.
While tax reform in the U.S. — which makes it less attractive to hold money abroad — and changes to Swiss banking laws may mean it’s a bit harder to woo American corporate headquarters, Mr. Zimmerli is confident the country will still be a draw.
Georgia, he said, will also find that intensifying efforts to attract Swiss firms would be a worthwhile time investment.
“There’s still potential in Switzerland.”
Contact the Swiss Business Hub here.