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The ball is in the politician's court, Brigitte Breisacher
echo-Interview, October 2016

The ball is in the politician's court

ELIPSLIFE ECHO - INTERVIEWS WITH PROMINENT BUSINESS LEADERS

The ball is in the politicians' court

echo-Interview with Brigitte Breisacher, CEO and owner of alpnach norm-Holding AG

elipsLife echo: Frau Breisacher, alpnach norm is synonymous with quality furniture and individuality. The name, however, suggests standardisation. Is this a contradiction?

Brigitte Breisacher: It's not a contradiction. Quite the opposite. For us, individuality is the norm. When my father founded the company in 1966, we did actually manufacture standardised cabinets. We grew up with these products. Today, it's not the cabinets that are standardised but rather our processes. This is the major change compared to the past. Having said that, we still of course remain true to our logo and label.

How do your furniture products differ from those that are imported into Switzerland?

The most important difference is quality. We devote great attention to this aspect and constantly compare our products critically with those of other furniture companies, which for the most part are foreign in origin. The second differentiating factor is our service capability that we offer our customers. Our 12 branches throughout Switzerland give us close proximity to them and enable us to provide an on-the-ground advisory capability. We accompany our customers throughout the whole process, from the initial advisory stage and the collaborative development of bespoke solutions, through to customised installation carried out by our own technicians. These are the two major differences between our overall product and the offerings from abroad.

What impact do the trends set by the major low-cost manufacturers have on alpnach norm's range of products?

Let's take Ikea as an example. The last time I visited one of their outlets was at the beginning of the year. But I wasn't inspired at all by their range of products. There's so much on offer – it's almost overwhelming. I would describe this type of purveyor as one focusing on the entry-level market, above all young people moving into their own place for the first time. Alpnach norm, on the other hand, markets to a contrasting buyer segment, our philosophy is quite different too. Consequently, we're not in the same price category either. Our products would not appeal at all to the target customers of the low-cost manufacturers.

Why should consumers purchase cabinets or kitchens from your company?

Because with us, the customer is getting a product exactly tailor-made to his specifications. We take careful note of the customer's wishes and, in collaboration with him, work on the desired product. We make sure that the end-result is an exact reflection of what he envisaged. At alpnach norm, a customer's wishes do not remain just as words on paper.

echo-Interview, October 2016, Brigitte Breisacher

Where are alpnach norm's sales territories? Do you export your products?

We concentrate on German-speaking Switzerland and the western part of the country. As I mentioned, we have 12 branches in these regions from Geneva into Thurgau. Although we don't have any outlets in Tessin, we often sell our products to German-speaking Swiss with holiday homes in the south of the country. We don't export our products.

How has a "local carpentry business" managed the step up to national level?

We have established a fine reputation with our high-quality products and have been able to gain a firm footing in the market. The recommendations of many satisfied customers have helped us tremendously. We have benefitted from this snowball effect. Today, we make sure our branches provide optimal coverage of our target markets. It is important that we have been able to put down local roots via the personal networks of our employees on the ground in our branches. Moreover, we not only work with local architects and private home builders, but also with large general contractors operating across the whole of Switzerland. Our targeted marketing campaigns have also been important in the successful effort to establish ourselves nationally.

How can a medium-sized, family business in the furniture industry hold its own in the face of international competition?

By being quick and agile. These are the most important qualities you need to stay ahead of your competitors. Compared to other companies, we have big advantages in this respect. As a family-run business, we're not dependent on banks and since 2008, when I took over from my father, the company has belonged to me 100%. I don't have to consult a bunch of other people before making my decisions or wait for lengthy rounds of feedback. I can see very quickly whether something's working or not. It's crucial to be quick on your feet and flexible, especially in these difficult times. Many smaller carpentry firms are capable of this too. But as a larger-size company, we have the advantage of more capacity and more substantial funds.

So alpnach norm is probably an attractive target for a takeover. When did you last receive a takeover offer?

The most recent one was in the spring. I told the potential acquirer, however, that we wanted to stay independent and that I had no interest in selling my company. I thoroughly enjoy what I do and I'm too young to sit back and just put my feet up. I want to make things happen. alpnach norm is my life!

You support numerous local causes and, via the Breisach Foundation, high-achieving artisans of the future. What's your goal here?

Our ties to the Alpnach community and to the cantons of Obwalden and Nidwalden mean a lot to us. Most of our employees were born in this region. They embody the experience and knowhow of our company. Their loyalty and commitment form the vital foundation for our success. Of course I could have cabinets manufactured more cheaply in Romania, but I wouldn't know who would be working for me there. I urgently need people who not only have great skills as craftsmen, but also who fully identify with the firm and are proud to be working for us. I see our support for local causes as a way of giving something back to the community of which we are a part and of saying thank you to our employees.

The establishment of the Breisach Foundation is my father's achievement. He accomplished a great deal in his life and always said that this was only due to people of good will, hard work and a little bit of luck. At the same time, he wanted to promote craftsmanship because he could not imagine – and indeed did not want to imagine – a world only made up of academics. The aim of the Breisach Foundation is therefore to fund monetary awards to young people in Obwalden and Nidwalden who do especially well in their final apprenticeship exams. Over the last eight years, the Foundation has distributed approximately CHF 1.2 million to young people in these two cantons.

Brigitte Breisacher in an elipsLife echo-interview

What are the ingredients for entrepreneurial success in your view?

A lot hinges on leadership, on being a model by dint of your own behaviour. I can't demand anything more from my employees than what I myself am prepared to do and am capable of doing. For me, successful leadership means being getting employees involved, empowering people and building a relationship of trust with them. So what I'm saying is that the most crucial success factor is your human capital. These days, products are becoming increasingly similar. We differentiate ourselves from the competition, above all, through the quality of our advisory and support services, as well as through the excellence of our product. All this is founded on the competence and passion of our employees. They make all the difference. I'm not saying you don't need luck and the right economic environment as well. But these are factors we can't do much about. Consequently, we concentrate on those things in the company that we can directly influence.

The alpnach norm Group has around 200 people on its payroll. Are the social security benefits the firm offers a relevant topic when interviewing new staff?

Up to now, this hasn't been a topic at all. During the interview process, I meet with every new employee personally to talk about our company values. Social security benefits, however, have never been mentioned.

Brigitte Breisacher CEO and owner of alpnach norm-Holding AG

Switzerland has a highly developed retirement benefit scheme which combines state and private benefits (the so-called Three-Pillar System). Will this system survive into the future, do you think?

I certainly hope so. If it weren't for the Three-Pillar System, our young people – the foundation of our future after all – would be facing a catastrophe. I hope that our politicians, at whatever level and whatever body they operate in, take a common sense approach to current developments and make adjustments to the system in good time. We want the system to still be working a hundred years from now. The ball is in the politicians' court. They need to act.

To understand the questions surrounding the proposed changes to the country's retirement and pension system (AVG-Revision 2020), one needs to be familiar with the issues. This requires communication and dialogue. Is this on your company's agenda?

At the moment, this topic is still a long way off. We focus on making sure our employees between 56- 58 receive the information they need in a timely fashion. The discussions we have with them centre on the possibilities our pension fund offers. Since alpnach norm's pension fund is managed by Swiss Life, we also put our older employees in touch with the Swiss life specialists who look after these matters for us. This gives our people the opportunity at an early stage to talk to pension fund professionals about changes, trends and recommendations in connection with old-age provisioning.

In your view, should pensioners also have to make a contribution to the financial overhaul of the retirement benefits system? Or are already secured entitlements a taboo topic?

This is a difficult issue and undoubtedly a sensitive one as well. Strictly speaking, the principle is that all the contributions paid in over the years should also be paid out in the form of a pension. But in the future, this will hardly be possible. So against this background, I can understand why there's a lot of pent-up frustration out there. But endless rounds of discussions are not going to make the situation any better. Sooner or later, we're going to need a line drawn, a majority decision on political level. At the end of the day, you're not going to be able to please everybody.

The unions and parties on the left want to strengthen the state-run system at the expense of the pension funds and private schemes. Is this the right way to go?

There's no way this can be the solution. The second and third pillars are highly individual and, in my view, should be left untouched. I do not support the proposal to recapitalise the AHV at the expense of the other two pillars.

echo-Interview with Brigitte Breisacher, CEO and owner of alpnach norm-Holding AG

The pension funds are in stormy waters, above all due to our ageing society and very low interest rates. Are they – and indeed all of us – going to fall victim to benefits promises that can't be kept?

Yes, I think that things could indeed develop along these lines. But I ask myself another question: In respect to the pension funds, what happens to their interest-rate differential? They invest their assets in shares, bonds and real estate. In regard to their real estate investments for example, they aim for net returns of between 4 and 5%. In contrast, pension fund assets currently yield only 2.25% interest. The pension funds apparently need to fund a big apparatus. However, in my view it's unacceptable that their investment gains are ploughed back into large annual profits or used to finance bureaucratic processes. Before we start talking about cutting benefits, there need to be massive reductions in administrative costs. The earnings generated should be used fully for the benefit of the insured.

What's your view on the planned raising of the retirement age for women to 65?

I don't have any issue with that at all. It's the right thing to do. Personally, I believe I'll have to carry on working until I'm 70. I should add, however, that I don't think the retirement age should be raised for people doing strenuous physical work, such as our carpenter-technicians.

If you could give the pension funds some advice, what would it be?

They should introduce a "lean is beautiful philosophy": Standardise processes, reduce downtimes and boost productivity. Instead of financing unnecessary bureaucracy, they should cut costs. This would mean more money could go towards actual benefit payments. In addition, they should employ their own common sense when it comes to changing the system, and not follow their own interests and needs. And what's most important: It's not about the pension funds' money, but about the money that belongs to the insured.

Personal Profile
Brigitte Breisacher
CEO and owner of alpnach norm-Holding AG

Brigitte Breisacher, born in 1968 in Maur close to Zurich, is the daughter of Theo Breisacher, the founder of alpnach norm. Equipped with a business training qualification, she gained a federal diploma in marketing, completed a management course at the University of St. Gallen and underwent training at the Institute for Financial Services in Zug (Institut für Finanzdienstleistung). Brigitte Breisacher joined Alpnach Norm-Schrankelemente AG in 1987 and assumed responsibility for the accounting, HR and marketing departments. In 1995, she joined the company's Supervisory Board and five years later was appointed CEO and Chairwoman of the Alpnach Group. She has been owner and Chairwoman of the alpnach norm Holding since 2008.