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The header image, showing a blue background and a portrait of Marco Beng
echo-interview, August 2018

To siphon off money retroactively would be unfair

ELIPSLIFE ECHO - INTERVIEWS WITH PROMINENT BUSINESS LEADERS

echo-interview with Marco Beng

echo-interview with Marco Beng, CEO of the Swiss Epilepsy Foundation (EPI)

elipsLife echo: Mr Beng, EPI was founded in 1886 to cater to people with epilepsy. Today it is a multi-purpose entity that carries out several different mandates for the public sector. Can you elaborate a little?
Marco Beng: As a multi-purpose enterprise, the Swiss Epilepsy Foundation operates the EPI Residential Facility, which is a home for people with disabilities – mostly epilepsy sufferers – the EPI Hospital School, the Lengg Senior High School and the Schenkung Dapples, which is a residential facility for young people. In partnership with the Zurich Foundation for Rehabilitation Centres, the EPI also administers the Klinik Lengg AG, a clinic for epileptology and neurorehabilitation. There are approximately 850 employees engaged in these social efforts. All these entities have mandates from the social, education and health departments of Canton Zurich, and – in the case of the young people’s residential facility – from the Federal Ministry of Justice.

Over time, the Foundation has taken on aditional tasks and projects. Can you elaborate?
An important focus is on counselling for epilepsy sufferers. Epilepsy can strike anyone at any time. It’s not just a congenital disorder but can also be triggered by a mechanical impact such as a blow to the head, a fall from a ladder or a car accident. Viruses, bacteria, a stroke or other abnormal changes in the brain can also be the cause. Epilepsy turns people’s lives upside down. In such cases, we offer victims comprehensive counselling, which is largely funded by EPI. EPI also offers financial assistance in instances of patient hardship, caused by the high cost of emergency services for example. People in homes for the handicapped also receive aid from EPI. This might come in the form of subsidies to improve their mobility, to enable them to take holidays or the co-financing of purpose-built facilities designed to make life less arduous for them. Some of the research carried out by the clinic leads the world. These activities, too, are supported by EPI.

A picture of Marco Beng giving the interview.

Which governing body oversees EPI?
EPI was born out of eclesiastical and educational influences. About 130 years ago, epilepsy centres sprang up all over Europe. Back then, epileptic children were still placed in psychiatric care. It was realised, however, that this measure was not a satisfactory solution. So it was decided to establish specialised centres to nurture and educate such children, as well as to provide medical care in the case of epileptic fits. This pan-European trend also reached Switzerland, and led in 1886 to the establishment of the Swiss Epilepsy Clinic in its current location. There’s no higher governing body as such. Although subject to oversight from the Federal Supervisory Board for Foundations, EPI is an autonomous entity.

How is EPI funded?
The various EPI entities are more or less self-supporting and finance themselves through the mandates they exercise. The Foundation owns its 120,000 square metre site, including the 50 buildings situated on it. EPI also has properties in the Zurich districts of Seefeld and Zollikon. The Foundation receives additional income from the rental contracts associated with these buildings and also from donations and legacies.

EPI operates Klinik Lengg and also the Swiss Epilepsy Clinic that forms part of it. Does every epilepsy sufferer in Switzerland come to this clinic?
We maintain close co-operation with Zurich University Hospital and also with the university children’s hospital. As far as the greater Zurich area is concerned, these two hospitals and our clinic are the first contact points for initial assessments of epilepsy sufferers. For the rest of Switzerland, we’re a specialist treatment centre. Eplileptics are treated in other neurological clinics of course. But the more demanding cases are very often sent to us.

With its EPI residential facility, the Foundation offers work and a home for handicapped people. How many people can be accommodated?
The residential facility has three accommodation buildings offering living quarters for 200 people. The 90 jobs in the workshops are for those that can work without supervision and only need intermittent support. The care centres offer employment opportunities for 110 people. In this environment, the care recipients are able to pursue activities customised to their needs and which they consider productive.

EPI employs 850 people. Does the topic of old-age provisioning come up during the recruitment process?
Generally speaking, the younger candidates tend not to be so interested in this subject. More important for them are a decent salary and the number of paid vacation days we offer. That said, the closer they get to retirement age, the more significance they attach to old-age benefits.

A picture of Marco Beng giving the interview.

Old-age provisioning is the main thing people worry about, but the last 20 years have seen no reform of the system. Now the Federal Council wants to prioritise the restructuring of the first pillar and finance this by raising value-added tax. Is this a good plan?
If you want to put the first pillar on a sound financial footing, a single measure in isolation certainly won’t solve the problem. So a moderate increase in value-added tax should also be considered as one part of the solution. In addition to this, the government will have to raise the contributions people pay into the system while they’re still in employment. Given increased life expectancy, this is the only way we can fund the longer period for which people will be drawing their pensions.

What’s your view on having 65 as the retirement age for women?
Women tend to live longer than men. So I don’t see why women should have shorter working lives. On the other hand, it goes without saying that women must receive the same pay as men. I’m assuming that in EPI, the wages paid to our male and female employees are on an equal level. However, I can’t claim to know exactly, which is why we intend to examine this question more closely in the very near future. I don’t think it’s a good idea to raise the retirement age to fixed levels, say 67 or 70. On the contrary, the retirement age needs to be structured in a flexible way.

On the subject of pension funds: Isn’t there a danger that the current low interest rates coupled with demographic development could unhinge the second pillar and mean that we fall victim to benefits promises that just can’t be finananced?
The danger is there, no question. Given the low interest rates, it’s getting ever more difficult to achieve the necessary yields. Right now, the share markets are on a roll, but I’m sceptical whether this development can be sustained. Demographics mean we are experiencing a cross-subsidisation of provisioning, from the young, i.e. the employed, to the old, i.e. the pensioners. We need to compensate for this development somehow. We have to convince the younger generation of the advantages of saving for old age at an early stage in their working lives. Here, too, raising pension contributions is a distinct possibility.

Should pensioners also be asked to contribute towards the financial restructuring of the second pillar, or are already secured pension entitlements a taboo topic?
Retirees have practically no means of compensating for possible cuts in their pensions. In many cases, this would create a danger of poverty in old age. When I’ve reached pensionable age and have made financial provisions for my retirement by making regular payments into the system, I need to be sure that I’m financially secure. I don’t want to be worrying that part of my pension income will be somehow siphoned off retroactively. This would be unfair and seriously undermine the solidarity between the generations.

Should government do more to support the third pillar in order to take pressure off the first and second pillars?
I don’t believe that strengthening the third pillar would bring any significant improvement. The first and second pillars are effective instruments, provided they are based on a sound foundation. But I do think they should be better promoted. I’m always amazed how little use is made of the opportunity to pay more into the second and third pillars, given that employees are well able to do this financially.

If you could give some advice to the pension funds what would it be?
First off, to conduct their business with circumspection and not to bet too heavily on the continuation of the current stock market boom. Secondly, to diversify in order to spread the risk as broadly as possible. And, thirdly, to ensure that the conversion rate reaches a level that secures pensions both in the medium and long terms.

A picture of Marco Beng giving the interview.
Personal Profile
Marco Beng
CEO of the Swiss Epilepsy Foundation (EPI)

Born in 1967, Marco Beng is CEO of the Swiss Epilepsy Foundation that provides services largely focused on epilepsy sufferers in the areas of health and social care, as well as in the sphere of education. Beng, a graduate of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, subsequently held managerial positions in companies such as Honeywell, Phoenix Controls and Siemens in South America, the US and Europe. In 2002, he gained an Executive MBA in Madrid. He became involved in health care while employed with Siemens Schweiz AG. From 2006 to 2016, Beng was CEO of the Muri Hospital. He is married with two daughters and lives in Mutschellen in the canton of Aargau.