An interesting perspective from a dual nationality British/Swiss national, who has lived and worked in both countries with a surprising viewpoint!
Listen to the full podcast from Barbara Reed here What can the Swiss teach us about business
Hello everybody, it’s Neil Foley from the Business Growth Club. I’m really pleased today to introduce you to Barbara Reed of Breed Events. How are you, Barbara?
Barbara Reed: I’m very well. Thank you very much for having me, Neil.
Neil Foley: You’re welcome. My pleasure of course, Barbara. What we’re going to hopefully explore over the next half an hour or so is … and this may sound a really strange title but I can assure you is quite a fascinating topic. Is the Swiss Way of Doing Business Relevant for Small or Medium Business in the Light of Brexit? How’s that for a title? How did you come up with that one, Barbara?
Barbara Reed: Oh, dear. I know I’ve made my own work hard for myself here.
Neil Foley: You have.
Barbara Reed: I have. Well, I just … I thought of what’s going to add value to our listeners and I thought as a Swiss national and British national I have a really good viewpoint of how both business and economies work having worked and lived in both countries. And then set on to cross and compare. I mean Brexit is quite a topic at the moment isn’t it?
Neil Foley: Yes, you can’t get away from Brexit whichever way you look at it can you?
Barbara Reed: No, and I don’t want to dwell too much in the politics of it and is it right, is it wrong. Let’s be honest. We all have one thing in common is that we have no idea what’s going to happen.
Neil Foley: Very true. It doesn’t sound like the Europeans do either.
Barbara Reed: No, no, absolutely. So, why don’t we look at what we do know. We know how the Swiss operated. They’re not part of the EU. They are part of Schengen Agreement. Also they’re quite unique as a country in the way they work and their economy works. So, why don’t we look to them and have a little glance into the Swiss way of doing business?
Neil Foley: That’s an excellent idea. Just set the scene a little bit. You’ve got a British dad and a Swiss mum. Is that right?
Barbara Reed: That’s right. My dad is Welsh originally from Cardiff. And my mom is from Central Switzerland with a very Swiss surname of Odermatt which means you can’t get very much more Swiss than that going back hundreds and hundreds of generations.
Neil Foley: Really?
Barbara Reed: Yes, yes. And I come from a small village in Central Switzerland near Lucerne. It’s called Buochs and I grew up there for 20 years until I decided to go on an adventure. Packed 20 kilos, went off to London and I think my parents thought I was going to return in a few weeks and well 10 years later I’m still here.
Neil Foley: And settled here.
Barbara Reed: And settled. Settled in Norwich. I love Norwich. It’s such a beautiful city and it’s such a beautiful place to live and work so it ticked all my boxes even though a little bit flat for my liking into comparison of what I’m used to.
Neil Foley: I was going to say. Yes, we don’t have many mountains do we?
Barbara Reed: No. No, no.
Neil Foley: Many hills.
Barbara Reed: But there’s the sea which obviously in Switzerland we’re deprived of so I do love that.
Neil Foley: Okay. How do the Swiss do things business wise then?
Barbara Reed: Okay, I think the first thing to ascertain is that Switzerland is really different to the UK in size but also in culture. One of the main things in Switzerland is that you actually have three or four cultures within it from their languages. So there’s four official languages and sometimes those areas actually disagree with each other on a political and economical spectrum as well. So you already have quite a mix.
But then if you look at the UK they’re-
Neil Foley: Similar.
Barbara Reed: … similar because we have all this multicultural different cultures, different languages.
Neil Foley: Wales being different.
Barbara Reed: Wales and Scotland. So there are similarities there. I guess size is the biggest difference.
Neil Foley: Yes.
Barbara Reed: So from an economy point and I have pulled these figures off the internet because I’m not very good with numbers but the way to sort of look at it and people talk about GDR and that’s basically just the wealth of the country. So the UK is 300% on the world average. Switzerland is 600% on the world average so double. But from a size-wise, Switzerland is actually eight times smaller than the UK in population.
When I look at Switzerland and the economy and the business, what I find really, really, really, interesting is that they are the leaders in Europe for innovations.
Neil Foley: The Swiss?
Barbara Reed: The Swiss are the number one for innovation. Why is that? So I had a little look into it and there’s R&D so research and development funding. Now I’m not going into complicated figures, but the UK spends double the amount in pounds, billions worth on R&D. But Switzerland’s eight times smaller so from a scale basis you can sort of see that they’re actually per person investing a lot more and I think that’s where the richness comes from when we talk about the stereotypes of Switzerland when it comes to high productivity, efficiency, punctuality, Swiss products are expensive but they’re high quality assured which is why the brand made in Switzerland is worth so much.
Neil Foley: Yes.
Barbara Reed: Yeah. And that’s sort of the parallels that I drew from stats.
Neil Foley: Okay. That’s surprising isn’t it because I don’t know why I’d have probably guessed that the Germans would have been more innovative or more into R&D.
Barbara Reed: Yeah.
Neil Foley: Obviously the Swiss have sort of …
Barbara Reed: No, yeah, that’s true. Now I’m not an economist, but I’m going to look at my outlet of where I grew up in Switzerland and what career opportunities were available to me. So, we can then look at the parallels with UK. So basically I went to school and then a small percentage go off and do what’s equivalent to A levels in university but it’s only a small percentage.
Neil Foley: Is it?
Barbara Reed: Yes, absolutely. Most of us leave school, go and join an apprenticeship and then do further education within our lines of careers. So that’s one.
Neil Foley: Would the apprenticeship be via the employer then?
Barbara Reed: Yes.
Neil Foley: So a small percentage would go to higher education but most would go via an employer.
Barbara Reed: Via an employer. And then if I think of all the businesses that were available to choose from in my region, well they were actually all small to medium-size businesses.
Neil Foley: Were they?
Barbara Reed: And what’s even more striking is that most of them were family owned businesses and still are. So here in the UK we have this bit of a philosophy of we build up businesses and then sell them on. That’s quite clearly different in Switzerland where in Switzerland traditionally, obviously times move on, but traditionally businesses have been built hundreds of years ago by families and get passed down the line.
Neil Foley: Really? To men and women? So sons and daughters?
Barbara Reed: Well, that’s a whole other conversation that we can have another day. Probably now, yes, absolutely.
Neil Foley: But traditionally it would have been to the sons?
Barbara Reed: I would have thought so. I think whoever probably made the best business case would have got it. I mean if I think about my family business, so from my mum’s side her father, they had a butcher and that went down … yeah that went down to the eldest son. It did, actually, yes. Yeah, that would tally up with that. But then within that family, so there’s seven siblings, there are at least three other businesses were made out as well, yeah.
Neil Foley: So the Swiss are very business orientated.
Barbara Reed: Very business. Actually very money orientated which goes hand in hand.
Neil Foley: Yes, hand in hand.
Barbara Reed: Yeah.
Neil Foley: And family is important?
Barbara Reed: Yeah.
Neil Foley: More so than probably over here do you think? Because here we’re quite disbursed and families don’t stay in the same area.
Barbara Reed: That’s very true, actually. I haven’t even thought about that. I mean for me it’s very difficult because I moved over when I was 20.
Neil Foley: But you were unusual in doing that?
Barbara Reed: Yes. I was … yeah out of the norm for doing that. And there are some people in Switzerland who are still quite angry with me that I left you know.
Neil Foley: Really?
Barbara Reed: Yeah, because let’s be honest. It’s one of the most beautiful places to live.
Neil Foley: Yes.
Barbara Reed: For me-
Neil Foley: So why would you go?
Barbara Reed: Why would I go? Well I was a half British, half Swiss so I had different cultures within me and I had aspirations and I wanted to go and explore and do something different and go and do something for myself. But if I look at my friends, most of them still live in the county that we grew up with. Yeah, they might have moved within villages. Most of them, not all, have families and careers. I think … I have the perception that it’s harder for a woman to own their own business or have a career and the family at the same time because I think it’s the same challenges as over here.
Neil Foley: It’s the same here isn’t it?
Barbara Reed: Nurseries are mega expensive. I don’t think they have any paternity leave or they might have just had a vote to get a little bit of paternity leave in. Because I remember when my friends gave birth to her child her husband actually had to take time off work to go and be there at the hospital. It’s very different over here where we’re in a very great situation where our partners can get paternity and we have that right to do so.
Neil Foley: But I get the impression with Switzerland that it’s a lot of self-reliance isn’t there?
Barbara Reed: Yeah, you could say so. I mean Switzerland itself is not as old. 1291 was the year it was founded and it was founded amidst a lot of war which is not something you associate with Switzerland and a lot of turmoil. And actually Switzerland got invaded a few times as well after by the French. So yes, there is a self-reliability for the Swiss themselves so maybe that’s why they do a lot of business internally and with each other.
Neil Foley: Do they?
Barbara Reed: Yes, I think they do.
Neil Foley: And from what you said in terms of you haven’t been forgiven by some people for leaving 10 years ago. Is part of the culture as well that they’ve got long memories so you actually don’t be too overly aggressive with each other? Or you actually remember that if you’re a family business you’re going to be wanting to do in business with somebody in 20, 30, 50 years’ time?
Barbara Reed: Absolutely.
Neil Foley: Because that’s different than here isn’t it?
Barbara Reed: Yes. Yeah, I think relationships are really key in Switzerland.
Neil Foley: Are they?
Barbara Reed: And actually they should be really key to us when we do business and market ourselves. The way we work with supplies, we shouldn’t be looking at who does the best deal. We should be looking at who’s going to give us the best quality service at a fair price of course. But it’s about building a relationship and trust.
Neil Foley: And the Swiss way is doing that?
Barbara Reed: Yes, from what I understand in the smaller economy scale of Central Switzerland of where I grew up, absolutely. If you’re looking at bigger companies that export, there’s a lot of exporting going on in Switzerland, then of course you take a leap of faith and you might not know your counterpart from China but I’m sure you will have advises from the Swiss embassy to reassure you that this is a good match. I wouldn’t think even though the Swiss are really great at innovation, it doesn’t strike me as great risk takers.
Neil Foley: No, I think they’re quite conservative [inaudible 00:11:57] aren’t they?
Barbara Reed: Yeah, calculated.
Neil Foley: Yes. There’s nothing wrong with being conservative and saying actually look after your own first and don’t take too much risk.
Barbara Reed: Yeah. Obviously you have to take risk to get a return, but if you’re calculated and measured about it, then that’s absolutely fine. Sometimes obviously it might not work out but I don’t think anyone would be putting money that they don’t have.
Neil Foley: Yes, because they’re not great borrowers are they?
Barbara Reed: No. I mean I got brought up on the fundamentals is that you don’t spend what you don’t have. So don’t get yourself in credit card debt and so on. I may have become a bit more British in that respect to be honest. Well you know.
Neil Foley: Glad we’ve had some influence on you.
Barbara Reed: Oh, absolutely. And again it all goes about for me personally it’s all about the calculated risk. So I’ve started up a business. You can’t start up a business with nothing. You need to invest something to get a return, but I’ve made the calculated assessment to whether I’m going to make a return or not and then have expected the probability of that so if it doesn’t work out I’m not going to be ruined. But at the same time I can see the potential and opportunity in having your own business and owning your own business and what that brings with it.
Neil Foley: It’s a balance isn’t it because I guess you’re right. The American and to a degree the British way is we can be quite risk takers. Especially with other people’s money. Or we can be unnecessary risk sometimes where people haven’t necessary thought … certainly that’s the U.S. way. It’s often leap before a proper assessment. You often see that with the U.S. when they buy companies. But the Swiss way because I think of that with people like Nestle and the rest of it and you don’t get much bigger than Nestle do you?
Barbara Reed: Well no. So Nestle is actually and I’ve read about this yesterday. Nestle is actually the biggest employer in Switzerland.
Neil Foley: Yeah, it doesn’t surprise me.
Barbara Reed: But that’s worldwide so something like 330,000. I’m not good with numbers but it was very big numbers of worldwide employees. And the other thing to remember about Switzerland also is that they have a lot of multinational companies with their headquarters in Switzerland so they’re not necessarily Swiss companies because they are multinationals and tax rates might be of interest for international companies and we can-
Neil Foley: And it’s security and it’s-
Barbara Reed: Security. I mean when was Switzerland involved in any conflict?
Neil Foley: Yeah, their neutral stance has always played well hasn’t it?
Barbara Reed: Neutral peacekeepers. A stable environment. I mean the unemployment rate has been at 3% consistently.
Neil Foley: Really?
Barbara Reed: At 3%
Neil Foley: Yeah, that’s almost … we would probably call that full employment.
Barbara Reed: And that’s been consistent and that’s the thing. There have been no recession which of course makes it hard for me when I … During the recession I was quite badly hit by it. When I was trying to communicate with my friends and family of how hard it was for me to try and find a job or how maybe badly paid the jobs were that were available to me, there wasn’t much sympathy for me. There was like, “What do you mean you’re unemployed? That doesn’t happen does it,” because there is an association there that if you’re unemployed in Switzerland, well surely you must be doing something wrong.
Neil Foley: It’s because you don’t want the job.
Barbara Reed: Yeah.
Neil Foley: Fundamentally different especially from where your dad came from in Wales which is the demise of coal and steel etc. has been …
Barbara Reed: Well my dad was in the forces and he travelled a lot. His whole family was in the forces, the Royal Air Force and I don’t think he actually spent that much time in Cardiff because he always tells me about how he lived in Scotland and in Cypress and all corners of England. So, yeah so-
Neil Foley: The joys of the RAF.
Barbara Reed: The joys of the RAF and he ended up in Switzerland somehow. And he actually did something very similar to me so just if he’s listening … He went to Switzerland on a contract at an aircraft company and was meant to come back to the UK and then just happened to meet my mums and then stayed.
Neil Foley: Stayed, so yeah he can’t tell you too much.
Barbara Reed: No, no.
Neil Foley: So if were looking at saying what do you think small or medium-sized companies could learn over here then about the Swiss way? Is it about the relationships? What to you strikes you as the big thing we could learn?
Barbara Reed: There’s a big word going on at the moment especially in light with the budget and everything and that’s called productivity.
Neil Foley: Yes.
Barbara Reed: I think as a small business we can do our smart part and look at the ways how we do business. How we conduct ourselves day to day. How efficient we are and if our productivity is up. And if it’s not up or going up, assess what else can we do to future proof our company especially with Brexit looming. I’m not saying this is a bad or a good thing, we’re just saying it’s an unknown. So we need to make sure in terms of our businesses we are shored up for that. And it’s maximising opportunities that are open to us.
The other thing is so we talked about innovation and we talked about research and development funding. Now, the Swiss, yes they invest more. They have got more money available to them so it’s a different ballgame. But three quarters of all that funding comes from the private sector. We’re not far behind. The UK’s expenditure is made up of 66% but I think even small businesses and medium-sized businesses have to take responsibility to invest into the future and that’s for me as well.
I’m a startup. It’s quite ambitious. At the moment my first worry is obviously getting … making the business stable and sustainable. But the next thing I’ll be looking at to is making it future proof and that is investing money into for example technology that will set me apart from my competition. I’m not even just talking locally or nationally, but looking beyond and looking at the bigger picture. I think that’s what the Swiss have got over us.
Neil Foley: And they’ve been doing that, it’s embedded in the culture.
Barbara Reed: It’s embedded in the culture and I think we need to embed that culture within ourselves. We have it. I mean the Brits have a great history of being fantastic engineers. We have some really great education systems available and opportunities available so we need to put the money in.
Neil Foley: I guess that possibly the link there is the family businesses because you can take a very long term view rather than I need this to work next week or next month. You can actually afford to say actually no, we’re … and I guess the mindset’s different isn’t it? If I’m thinking about a business as a way of earning some money, that’s one thing. If I’m thinking of a business as being this is my inheritance so this is my family for X generations, it’s a different mindset isn’t it?
Barbara Reed: Absolutely. Yeah, I mean you’ll probably find this funny. When I went through some business mentoring and courses and things, I was really surprised by one of the first questions asked me and it was called the exit strategy. And actually I got really, really cross because I thought what do you mean exit strategy? This is my business. Why would I want to exit? Obviously now it makes all a bit more sense and I look at my own business actually in two separate ways.
On one hand I’m developing products and services which may become an exit strategy. However, the core of the business Breed Events is mine and that is my legacy and that is hopefully one day going to be my inheritance as well as something that I can pass on. A bit like a house.
Neil Foley: Yeah. That’s very different … you’re absolutely right. I hadn’t thought of that until you said it but you’re right. It’s one of the first things that people talk about is an exit strategy. And that is one of the things with capitalism and very much embedded in the west. It’s about making your money and selling it to somebody else rather than the legacy.
Barbara Reed: Yeah.
Neil Foley: That’s a very good point isn’t it?
Barbara Reed: Yeah. And I guess in a way that reflects the way I do day-to-day business and the way I communicate or treat clients is that I take the long term view. And I guess may be naively I just sort of expect that everyone has the same mentality of going, “What do you mean exit strategy? This is my business and I have pride in this and I want this to go the long way.”
So, I can’t say that I’m expecting Breed Events to be called Breed Events in 100 years’ time but it’d be nice if something of it. It’s still sort of lives on.
Neil Foley: And it is a different mindset isn’t it? It just popped into my head, I remember reading a really interesting, a really fascinating book. It’s not a business book. It’s called The Shepherd’s Life by a fellow called James Rebus I think. It’s all about being a shepherd in the Lake District but there it’s about not robbing your neighbour because when you’re dealing in sheep and selling sheep to each other that the prices are open to negotiation. And there was an example in the book where he actually as a young man didn’t necessary take advantage but he got a very good deal of a neighbour.
And the understanding was the following year you return the favour because actually for generations you’re going to deal with people so it’s about being fair to your neighbours and that sounds like the Swiss thing doesn’t it?
Barbara Reed: Yeah.
Neil Foley: And that’s not a British thing really.
Barbara Reed: And I think it was one of the main things that motivated me to start up my own business is that I’d worked in lots of different companies. Some really great. Some less so. And one of the things that really annoyed me was … I deal with events and one of the things that really annoyed me is when the client would have an idea and they would go along with it and then I would hear the sort of people that are involved with putting this on are going, “Oh god this is a terrible idea.”
And okay I was an admin person you know. I was really new in the game but I sort of was sitting there quietly going but that’s not right. If it’s not a good idea why don’t you tell them it’s not a good idea and come up with something better. Because surely if your clients are doing well and they like you, they’ll stick with you.
Neil Foley: Yeah. If the events are successful the client they come back don’t they and re-book for the following year.
Barbara Reed: They’ll come back. Absolutely and it’s not just with events as well. So this makes me a little bit maybe a bit different to other event people is that I don’t actually focus on the one event. I look at the overall picture because I think an event needs to … especially in business terms, needs to fit in to the overall picture of the business. If people want to put on a party and just throw some money up in the air, that’s all find and well but I’m not going to be the company that’s going to be organising that for you. I’m more interested in how can we make a greater return on what you’re spending. If that monetary or sales or actually getting the message across that’s a different question. But it goes back to that Swiss fundamental or I look after you, you look after me.
Neil Foley: So that would be one of your key points when you started thinking about this, Barbara, in terms of it’s about a longer term relationship more so than the quick buck.
Barbara Reed: Absolutely.
Neil Foley: And that could be really an important lesson because if we enter a recession, over here recessions are cyclical we just don’t know how long the cycle is, but we’re bound to enter another recession. And actually if you’ve got the fundamentals of right in terms of your relationships with suppliers and clients, actually you’re in a better place aren’t you?
Barbara Reed: Yeah, and at the same time we all have to say that there’s no right or wrong way of doing it. And also there’s nothing that’s going to be recession proof. It depends how hard it gets and how cold the winter gets. There are businesses that are quite frankly not going to survive and I actually class my own business at great risk of a recession because the first thing that gets cut off is marketing and events.
So it’s my job now taking the long viewpoint of going, okay so I’m very good at organising events. I’m very good at looking the long ways. What can I do with my company that makes it not recession proof but at least I can survive.
Neil Foley: Protected. Well that’s where maybe your mother’s side comes in in terms of the Swiss side which is about being cautious with money.
Barbara Reed: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Neil Foley: Not overstretching because fundamentally businesses don’t necessarily … they sometimes die because of a bad idea but actually they die because they don’t have enough cash.
Barbara Reed: No, yeah, cash flow’s …
Neil Foley: Yeah, so if you can protect yourself by being cautious and tight and prudent …
Barbara Reed: I think that’s another good point especially as a startup and as someone who … I don’t have a business degree. I have a degree in event management and that was great but I think I’ve learned more over the last six months of building a business and I went on a really interesting course with a company called Creating Value who’s local as well. And they’ve got this board game and-
Neil Foley: Now I’ve heard of this.
Barbara Reed: You’ve heard of it. And that’s fantastic because it allowed me to understand real term cash flow.
Neil Foley: Yes.
Barbara Reed: And only once I understood this, I really understood what I let myself in for. It suddenly was-
Neil Foley: It’s just as well you hadn’t done it since the beginning.
Barbara Reed: Yeah, and I suddenly went, oh my goodness. But what a great thing to learn.
Neil Foley: And now is the time to learn it isn’t it? Rather than-
Barbara Reed: Yeah. Now’s the time to do it. Like I said, I’m still quite new in the game and I’m going to learn a lot of things I’m pretty sure. But this is the time for me to act and be proactive and get in this long term vision that’s the-
Neil Foley: Yes, and that’s the fundamentals that we’re talking about.
Barbara Reed: Yeah.
Neil Foley: So you said you’re in event management, so what is Breed Events? I know we’re going to talk about this another time but just give me a flavour of what Breed Events actually is.
Barbara Reed: Okay, so Breed Events is a full-service events company in its essence. What we specialise in is working with companies that are participating or putting on an event for an objective which you would think every event does but you’d be surprised how many people I’ve talked to and they said, “Oh we’ll just put on some networking events,” and I go why and they go, “Well, just because we can.” I said but what are you trying to achieve? Are the people to your networking event actually your type of audience?
“Oh no, no, they’re just people we know,” and that’s just … I smile and nod and then shake hands and then slowly walk away because I sort of go, you don’t get it.
Neil Foley: No.
Barbara Reed: Again, I think the recession hasn’t been all that bad because it means for event managers like me we’ve had to really understand what return on investment is and become more business focused. So instead of just putting on a lovely do with lovely lighting which you know you should still do, you need to look at the fundamentals of why you’re doing it.
And if you client has a brilliant idea, you need to find a way of making that happen but in a way that it achieves those objectives. And with that if the client ends up spending more than what they’re getting out of, then maybe you have to be honest to yourself and go, look I really like you but this is not going to work. If you still want to go ahead with it, it’s your own thing but it’s not going to work.
Neil Foley: So you’ll focus far more on objectives for clients rather than saying yes, we’ll do the event and take that. Because I guess if I rather cynically I’ve always thought of event management as more about could you just do the admin and the rest of it whereas what you’re trying to do makes a lot more sense is to say, let’s look at the fundamentals and how does it fit within your overall marketing strategy as a … because if we make this work, this is something that we should be repeating and repeating.
Barbara Reed: Yeah, and the idea for it, where it came from was when you read event briefs or even things in the internet to pitch for basically, sorry the word has just gone for me. But basically-
Neil Foley: When you need for a tender document.
Barbara Reed: A tender, that’s the one. So when you read those tender documents and it’s very, very clear that it hasn’t been written by an event manager.
Neil Foley: Really?
Barbara Reed: Because they’re really high level. They’re sort of a bit wishy washy but they’ve been written by a business developer or CEO with an idea but we need to marry the two together. We need to marry the overriding objecting and the practicality of the event because there are some fundamental logistics. Things like the customer experience, queuing and there’s a lot of places where you can waste money like ordering too much catering for example or instead of going the digital route, printing loads of paper. Don’t do that. That’s just a waste. So you do need that type of knowledge but you need to marry the two together.
Neil Foley: So how do people get in contact with you? I know from what we’ve talked about in the past you’re happy to think to anybody who’s thinking of event or organising events. How do people get in contact with you, Barbara?
Barbara Reed: Absolutely. I have a band new website just launched and it’s www.breedevents.co.uk.
Neil Foley: Okay.
Barbara Reed: Alternatively, just drop me an email to email@example.com and I’m happy to talk. No commitment needed. Let’s just have a coffee, let’s have a chat and see if I can help. And if not, I might be able to point you in the right direction who could help.
Neil Foley: And taking the Swiss view, take the long term view.
Barbara Reed: Taking the long term view.
Neil Foley: That’s right. Take the long term view. Well it’s been really interesting and I really appreciate your time, Barbara. Thank you for that.
We’ll have a transcript of this up on the website and if you want to find out more obviously you can get hold of Barbara at breedevents.co.uk. Or look at the businessgrowthclub.net and until next time, goodbye.