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“Agility is essential in crises”

Simone Wyss Fedele, CEO of Switzerland Global Enterprise (S-GE), talks about the corona crisis, agile SMEs and Alibaba in an interview with the Handelszeitung.

Simone Wyss Fedele

The Aussenwirtschaftsforum (Foreign Trade Forum) is scheduled for the end of April. Will it take place?
Simone Wyss Fedele: Due to the situation surrounding the coronavirus, we have decided to cancel the Aussenwirtschaftsforum on April 28. We are complying strictly with the official requirements. After all, the health of our customers, partners and staff is our top priority. Together with our partners, we are planning a new type of event format for the second half of 2020.

The theme of the event would have been: “Go international as an SME – Pioneering spirit for success”. What would be your formula have been?
In almost all cases, the foundation for the international success of Swiss companies lies in the product’s potential unique selling point, usually technological or quality leadership in a niche, and a market development strategy tailored to the target market. Due to increasing volatility in international business, it will also be decisive in future that internationally active SMEs are able to deal with uncertainties in an agile and more robust manner than their competitors. In crisis situations, this makes it possible to gain market share in a targeted manner. This was the case in the last financial and debt crisis, and Brexit and the innovative handling of the coronavirus also offers this potential.

How is the current coronavirus pandemic affecting local SMEs?
Since January, customers have been reporting to us on an ongoing basis that they fear disruptions in their supply chains from China, or that they are already affected by them. This stems from the current strong integration of the Chinese economy in the global economy: All industries purchase key components, parts and semi-finished goods from China: If the Chinese economy falters, this can affect the entire global business of an SME.

The crisis has meanwhile reached global proportions.
The effects are already clearly visible. Accordingly, we have adapted our range of services for international SMEs in line with their needs in this crisis. Concerns are widespread. Around the world, important trade fairs are being cancelled every week, local demand is declining, especially in the most severely affected countries, and it is only a matter of time before global economic growth temporarily dips significantly.

What measures are worthwhile in the current situation?
Many companies are currently addressing the issue of risk management. The safety of their own staff worldwide is the top priority. At the same time, SMEs should definitely endeavor to maintain business continuity, which is why Switzerland Global Enterprise (S-GE) helps many SMEs experiencing disruptions in supply chains from China to find alternative sources of supply. One of the biggest risks for companies in times of crisis is when reactive risk management no longer allows them to focus on their operations. This brings us back to agility: an agile approach to crisis situations is essential for sustainable success in international business.

SMEs have to act.
Unlike large companies, most SMEs do not have departments to deal with this issue. Therefore, at S-GE we show interested SMEs what the implications of global developments such as the coronavirus might be, how international markets are developing, where there is new business potential and how they can minimize their risks.

How do you assess the global economic conditions otherwise?
The situation is precarious. This is something that internationally active companies must be able to deal with.
For some years now, we have observed that volatility in the global economy is increasing more and more. In 2019 alone, we had the trade dispute between the US and China, seemingly never-ending Brexit negotiations, various geopolitical tensions and growing concerns about climate change, which led to protests around the globe. Protectionism has also been spreading worldwide since the financial crisis. And currently the global economy is feeling the effects of the coronavirus.

Where is this leading?
In many industrialized countries, these developments are leading to an increasingly critical sentiment towards globalization and openness – even in Switzerland. This development worries me the most, especially when one considers that the economic success and prosperity of Switzerland as a small, resource-poor national economy is essentially based on our openness and the global integration of our economy into international trade.

How is Switzerland Global Enterprise doing in this environment?
The corona crisis is certainly also keeping us on our toes. The aim is to ensure the safety of our staff, the necessary customer support and corporate crisis management as quickly as possible. Here, we can rely on a good digital infrastructure that enables all staff to work from home. We are on course here.

And apart from the coronavirus?
Everything is fine. The satisfaction of our customers and clients and the quality of the cooperation with our partners is decisive here. In 2019, we were able to support over 5000 SMEs in their international business with their help and referred more than 130 international companies to the cantons with regard to location - all while maintaining a high level of customer satisfaction. In addition, I used my first months in office intensively to meet with our clients and partners. The feedback on our strategy and work has been positive. Based on this strong starting position, we are prepared to set the right priorities even in volatile times.

You have been the CEO of S-GE since October. Where do you want to lead the organization?
Together with our partners, our central priority is to continue to offer our customers the best possible service at all times - in export promotion these are SMEs, which we support in their international business. In location promotion, we convince foreign companies of the benefits of setting up business in Switzerland. We want to contribute to the competitiveness of our customers and thus create jobs and prosperity for Switzerland.

SMEs should definitely try to maintain business continuity.

What will your priorities be?
To achieve our goals, we are pursuing four strategic priorities: The environment is developing dynamically for our customers and with it their needs. Our top priority is therefore to work with our partners to ensure that all our activities are continuously geared to customer requirements. To this end, we make consistent use of digital technologies and continue to strengthen our partner network and our global network of branches in a focused manner from the customer's perspective. Comparison with our sister organizations abroad gives us valuable ideas in this respect.

S-GE wants to be the first point of contact for SMEs that want to export but do not have time to evaluate all offers. How do you aim to achieve this?
Thanks to our independence and non-profit orientation, the broad partner network and our global presence in 27 markets, we can fulfill this role optimally. It is important that SMEs in Switzerland know that S-GE exists and what added value we can offer them together with our partners and under what conditions.

How do you do this?
Firstly, the recommendations of our customers and partners are decisive.
They are very numerous. On the other hand, it is important that we specifically supplement this positive background noise through selected activities that enhance how we are perceived by internationally active SMEs. Here we consciously focus on their needs, for which we can offer solutions together with our partner network.

How familiar are you with the specific concerns of SMEs?
Based on my experience at Helvetia Insurance, Takeda Pharmaceuticals and Novartis, I am familiar with the internationalization needs of our customers - whether Swiss SMEs or foreign investors - within the scope of our mandates and, together with our management team, I can ensure that we as an organization make the right decisions. Interestingly, the needs of small and large companies hardly differ when it comes to entering new markets. Both have to decide, for example, whether they want to work with a local partner, open a branch or use a digital channel. Larger companies have specialized in-house teams for such questions, whereas SMEs usually do not.

So is this where S-GE comes in?
Exactly - for internationalization issues. That is what we specialize in within the framework of export promotion. In Switzerland and at our locations abroad, we have teams with the necessary experience and a unique national and global partner network to help Swiss SMEs achieve international success. The umbrella and industry associations are the competence centers for national SME concerns.

Where do you see a need for action at S-GE?
I have already mentioned the main areas. I certainly consider the continuous development of our services, in order to be able to serve constantly changing customer requirements in an agile way, to be particularly important. Another exciting topic, which underlines the importance of our partner network, is for example e-commerce. At the beginning of the year, for example, we were the first export promotion agency in the world to sign a letter of intent with Alibaba for the Asian region, which provides for cooperation in the area of online trade. E-commerce is one of the most important sales channels in Asia. Our cooperation with Alibaba aims to show Swiss SMEs how to make the best use of this channel for their sales in the region.

 

This interview was published in the Handelszeitung on March 19, 2019.

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