Economic Development Agency: Money to Berne – Denis Grisel

Switzerland is a well-known haven for business and tax systems, but, as Denis Grisel, director of the Berne Economic Development Agency, tells FDE, the canton of Berne is distinguishing itself through its use of technology 'clusters' as an incentive for business and the sense of community that characterises the local economy.

Finance managers are well aware of the benefits of Switzerland's tax structure. The country's healthy public finances and few debts allow for competitive individual and corporate tax systems. But tax is just one aspect of Switzerland's corporate finance offering. Through the Berne Economic Development Agency (BEDA), companies are offered inducements such as tax exemptions and financial incentives of up to half a million Swiss francs.

The agency acts as a go-between for companies and municipal authorities, higher education institutions, industrial associations, banks, venture capitalists, consultants and lawyers.

Additional services include individual site evaluation visits, tax holiday and other financial contributions, property services, information on permits and social insurance, and help looking into R&D subsidies.

The BEDA also hosts the quarterly Berne Expat Breakfast to strengthen the business community, build networks and share expertise. It also helps companies take their first steps in the canton and connects them with organisations, universities and Bernese administration.

"The agency acts as a go-between for companies and municipal authorities, higher education institutions, industrial associations, banks, venture capitalists, consultants and lawyers."

BEDA director Denis Grisel is as keen to emphasise Berne's sense of community as he is to promote local financial incentives. The business community has grown closer and stronger over the past 15 years after it embraced the idea of technology 'clusters'.

Grisel uses the example of the precision manufacturing industry. It supplied the Swiss watch industry but after the sector shrank in the 1970s, workers transferred their expertise to other technologies.

The dental implant company Straumann benefits from their expertise, making intricate restorative implants, while precision industry company Harting uses precision skills to manufacture connectors. 

Car component suppliers Feintool and Sonceboz, and solar energy technologist Meyer Burger Swiss Solar Systems have also joined this cluster, which illustrates how diversity and innovation have capitalised on a traditional Swiss skill. Clusters ensure the survival of heritage manufacturing skills that would otherwise have been lost.

"Like the tax system," Grisel explains, "clusters were developed from the bottom up, and that benefits the community." He adds that there has always been plenty of opportunity to create clusters in Berne, thanks to the large number of SMEs in the canton. Networks are constantly evolving between the companies and subcontractors. The BEDA was keen to create a collaborative economy as well as stimulating competition. "If you want to be global," he tells companies, "maybe you should work together. Try it."

The philosophy has proven popular and has helped the canton thrive over the past 15 years: there are now cluster organisations for the precision industry, medical technology, ICT, green technologies, consulting and design. Universities and research institutes are also part of the cluster structure. 

Calm waters

Grisel is passionate about the advantages of living in the Canton of Berne. He notes that the city of Berne has been part of Mercer's top ten for quality of life for several years running and features on UNESCO's list of world cultural heritage sites. The city has a wide range of museums, concerts, theatres, open-air performances and international sporting events, and is only an hour from the Bernese Alps.

The BEDA's English language website provides ex-pats with a list of the community's clubs and societies, making it easy for families to meet fellow English-, French- and German-speakers. Grisel compares Berne to a tanker at sea. "We're not going quickly," he jokes, "but we are going steady."

He points out that, although the local growth rate is below the national average, it is consistent, and unemployment is also lower. Some would argue that the Bernese economy is more of an ocean liner than a tanker; either way it offers smooth sailing for companies looking to offshore parts of their enterprise.

BEDA director Denis Grisel.