The Greater Geneva Bern area (GGBa) is among Switzerland’s strongest performing business regions. But what makes Western Switzerland so attractive as location to live and do business in? To find out, TPBO caught up with Thomas Bohn, Executive Director of GGBa.
The interview is part of our series of paid features aimed at presenting high-potential business locations around the world – and to introduce you to the person in charge of foreign investment attraction. If you’d like to introduce your city or region, please contact us.
Thomas, the Greater Geneva Bern area is booming as a business location – despite the ongoing pandemic. To your mind, what makes the region so attractive?
Switzerland has a reputation as a resourceful, resilient and pragmatic country – all key attributes when it comes to navigating a crisis and adapting to unforeseen changes. During the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Swiss Interior Minister Alain Berset made headlines with his statement that “we must act as quickly as possible, but as slowly as necessary.” I think this is Swissness at its finest: the idea of finding sensible, balanced, and concrete solutions even in exceptional circumstances. Accordingly, the coronavirus crisis is strengthening Switzerland’s appeal as a stable and secure investment destination.
Western Switzerland – which comprises the cantons of Bern, Fribourg, Vaud, Neuchâtel, Geneva, and Valais – has been consistently attracting new investments. It is a thriving, multicultural, bilingual region, with strong tech hubs such as Health Valley and Trust Valley.
Albeit being small in size, it provides privileged access to the European market and its 500 million consumers, and is an excellent test market thanks to its cosmopolitan, affluent population.
How does GGBa attract investors and talent?
The GGBa is a team of experienced, passionate and professional “company-hunters”. The most promising markets for FDI inflows to Switzerland are the United States, China and Europe, and we recently strengthened our footprint in all three locations.
After opening a second office in China (Shenzhen) and a fourth one in the US (Silicon Valley) in 2018, last year we expanded into Germany and Northern Europe. Of course, we welcome innovative companies and top talent from all over the world, regardless of our geographic focus. We have developed actionable business intelligence tools in order to identify and approach the best companies at the right time, and we are constantly on the lookout for new industry trends and opportunities. It is also important that the entrepreneurs behind the companies we support share our values, as it facilitates their integration into the local ecosystem and brings real value to the region.
Which are the main challenges when promoting a region such as GGBa to potential investors or skilled workers?
Switzerland enjoys an excellent reputation internationally, which is helpful. However, it is best known as a tourist – rather than a tech and investment – destination. Entrepreneurs are not necessarily aware that this small, picturesque country nestled in the Alps is also the number one in the world for innovation and talent attraction.
Some people think that the cost of doing business in Switzerland is prohibitive, but it is not, especially considering the higher-than-average productivity and longer working hours: Swiss employees work an extra day per week (42 hours) compared to their French counterparts (35 hours).
And top talent is expensive in Switzerland as it is elsewhere; as a matter of fact, Geneva is cheaper than Paris or London. Companies here get great value for money, as demonstrated by the number of reinvestments and expansions.
How accessible is the GGBa region for international start-ups and entrepreneurs?
Switzerland is a liberal country that offers excellent framework conditions. Taxes are moderate and so are social security contributions. Everything is already in place to empower entrepreneurs to launch and operate a successful business. As a result, Swiss people do not expect the state to act as a paternalistic provider. Incentives are available for projects that create value in terms of jobs, technology, or investment, but they are not intended as – and shouldn’t be – the trigger for investment, rather the cherry on top. The Swiss start-up scene brims with awards, competitions, and special programs, and is supported by a fast-growing VC ecosystem. It is always a better sign when a private investor puts money in a company, rather than the state, don’t you think?
Which trends do you observe currently, likely to impact the ability of regions in Europe to attract talent or investors?
Business hubs across the world are vying to attract new companies.
Contrary to popular belief, the main factor driving investment decisions is not the corporate tax rate, but access to talent.
Switzerland is extremely well positioned in this respect, topping the IMD World Talent Ranking 2020 for the fourth consecutive year. Our country is equally strong at developing and attracting talent, thanks to its high-ranking education system and outstanding quality of life.
Bright minds – be it homegrown or foreign – are Switzerland’s most valuable asset.
Apart from the difficulties which many place branders and locations are experiencing due to the coronavirus pandemic, in terms of being able to attract talent and investors: has the current situation also benefited your region in some ways – for example in that it forced innovative solutions, or produced new business opportunities?
The world has changed rapidly and unexpectedly this year. As an organization, we have always been very lean and agile, anticipating solutions rather than simply reacting to problems. Several years ago, we had already created a unique business intelligence unit that allows us to stay on top of current trends and events.
Some of our colleagues are particularly knowledgeable in high-tech sectors such as drones, blockchain, or biopharma, and we also work with a network of experts and partners. We have developed several digital initiatives in collaboration with some of them; the upcoming ones are the Virtual Swiss Drone Industry Tour, and a webinar on Scaling Global Biologics Production: Partnerships Across the Value Chain.
Securing adequate funding and stakeholder buy-in is often a challenge for organizations charged with promoting a city or region as business location. How do you approach this at GGBa?
GGBa is fully financed by our six member cantons. We blew out our 10th candle this year, and our stakeholders have never been more satisfied with our work, both in terms of promotion and prospection.
It is crucial for us that all the parties involved get something out of it. GGBa is a long-term venture: our organization functions well because all six cantons believe in it and see the advantage of working together to market our territory as a strong, diverse region, rather than a collection of single entities.
How important is a location’s environmental sustainability and climate resilience nowadays for its ability to attract investors and talent?
With a spot in the top 3 of this year’s Environmental Performance Index, Switzerland is among the global leaders in sustainability and the issue is of clear importance to us as we strive to attract new investors and talent.
Western Switzerland actively contributes to solving the world’s sustainability challenges: the Oeschger Center for Climate Research at the University of Bern is one of the most important hubs for international climate research; earlier this year, EPFL and the University of Bern helped to launch the International Universities Climate Alliance to promote innovation, knowledge transfer and research cooperation among the world’s top climate scientists.
In Valais, the ALPOLE research center focuses on high-altitude and high-latitude environments, which are sentinels of climate change. We are also lucky enough to count Geneva – the world’s most active multilateral diplomatic center – among our members. Geneva is leading the sustainability agenda and spearheading sustainable finance.
Sustainability in its broad social, economic and environmental sense is definitely a USP for Western Switzerland.
How do you collaborate with other institutions and businesses, to make sure their actions and stories are “on brand” and align with your portrayal of GGBa as business and investment location?
Promoting Switzerland abroad is a team effort. We work in close cooperation with other Swiss regions and continually cultivate our network of local partners. Our messaging, values and objectives are aligned by nature.
Our best brand ambassadors, however, are the companies that are already present in the region. The simple fact of working on a joint initiative – such as a webinar or an event – speaks volumes about their satisfaction. We regularly have companies reaching out to us following the recommendation of a partner or client whose Swiss expansion we supported in the past.
What’s next for GGBa?
While 2020 will go down in history as the year of the pandemic, it is also the year of GGBa’s 10th anniversary! We are getting ready for the next 10 years with great confidence, because this crisis, too, shall pass. We cannot wait for the borders to reopen and for people to be able to travel again safely, so that we can welcome entrepreneurs from all over the world.
Our interview with Thomas Bohn of the Greater Geneva Bern area is part of our series of (paid) portraits and interviews aimed at introducing cities and regions as potential places for talent and investors to consider as location to live and invest in. If you’d like to also introduce your business location to our global audience, please contact us.
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