Canton of Valais Economic Development Office: a sunny outlook for SMEs

The state of Valais prides itself on being a hub for SMEs; regional authorities are keen to attract more to the area while striving to ensure they all fulfil their potential. Jocelyne Pepin from the Canton of Valais Economic Development Office discusses the region's unique initiatives that furnish companies with the tools to succeed.

Born in upper Valais, esteemed hotelier César Ritz was a pioneer of luxury resorts who used his charisma and business acumen to enthral a wealthy clientele. His success is indicative of the canton of Valais's proud entrepreneurial history, and his spirit and ingenuity are attributes regional administrators have been trying to instil throughout the enterprises located in the region.

In with the Ark

Nothing captures Valais's desire for innovation quite like the Ark Foundation. Masterminded by local authorities, the Ark is an interactive technology park spread across six sites, each with the aim of developing businesses in the IT, engineering and life science sectors.

It creates a vital platform for like-minded companies to network, accelerates groundbreaking design and offers start-ups invaluable support.

There are more than 150 IT companies, and life sciences are responsible for 5,000 jobs throughout Valais. It is also the second-largest chemical producer in Switzerland. Nurturing these sectors could prove critical to sustaining economic growth, and the Ark Foundation is one such programme devised to do so.

"It is an example of the federal government providing funds to help the cantons launch specific programmes," says Jocelyne Pepin, executive member of Valais's Economic Development Office. "Such is the success of the initiative, they have offered similar investment to other regions. It's currently unique in Switzerland."

The canton's economy is built on SMEs - 90% of businesses hire fewer than 100 people, and helping these to grow is a key focus of its economic policy.

"In 2004, we built the Ark to enable enterprises to increase their competitiveness. In each physical park, you will find research institutes, SMEs and start-ups as well as mentors to aid them provided by the administration," says Pepin.

Set-up for start-ups

Keen to further solidify the canton's status as a start-up hive, regional authorities have created Business Valais - a virtual company charged with assisting investors and enterprises interested in setting up there. Like the Ark, it offers a valuable network of contacts and a library of information for new and existing institutions.

"Through Business Valais, an investor has direct access to all the support they need, from information on the financial and tax incentives to contact with the municipal or cantonal authority," says Pepin. "We provide a case manager to every company that seeks to locate its activity in our zone.

"This person provides a link between the project, the partners and all offices of the administration. The economic and finance ministers are also very accessible, and arranging meetings with them is easy."

Beyond business

Though SMEs represent a significant proportion of businesses in the area, large international conglomerates also have a presence. The aluminium industry generates more than 2,000 jobs in Valais, many of which are with the global mining corporation Constellium.

Valais accounts for 30% of the total hydroelectric energy produced in Switzerland, and Grande Dixence plays a significant role in delivering this.

Even with the Ark Foundation and Business Valais programmes, there is still intense competition between the cantons to attract new businesses, and enticing individuals is equally important. According to Pepin, the cost of living in Valais is cheaper than most other cantons, and residents can expect an exceptional quality of life.

"In Valais, you don't need company gaming rooms to free up your mind, you just step out of the office. There are slopes for skiing during the winter; you can go hiking, golfing or visit the wellness spas," she says.

"It's such a safe place here, you can let your young kids walk to school on their own."

Dramatic landscapes, prestigious resorts and on average 300 days of sun a year make Valais a tourist hotbed and the sunniest canton in Switzerland.

With the help of the Ark Foundation and Business Valais, the future is just as bright for the SMEs as it is for the tourists, increasing the likelihood that the canton can produce the next generation of César Ritzes.

Jocelyne Pepin of the Canton of Valais Economic Development Office.