Chronicle 3 | Swiss Economic Forum 25 years: from idea to institution

Peter Stähli and Stefan Linder made the decision to set up the Swiss Economic Forum in January 1998 on the Griesalp in the Kiental valley. Their vision was to lift the existing event out of its regional context and position it as a national conference – a sort of WEF for Swiss SMEs. The proximity of the venue to the country’s capital also played a role, as decisions on key aspects of the Swiss economy were taken in the Federal Parliament. Many SME entrepreneurs were operating alone, without good access to politicians and without a platform for exchanging ideas and networking with their peers.

The goal of the two founders was to close this gap with a newly conceived forum. Stähli and Linder defined the basic concept for the conference: one and a half days including a long evening for networking, speeches by renowned national and international figures, smaller special events with case studies and special topics, and appearances from surprise guests and outside-the-box thinkers.

They sought to attract three main sponsors. Their dream partner UBS played very hard to get. Requests were passed up from one level of the hierarchy to the next, from Thun via Bern and Zurich to the head office in Basel, where the pair were twice asked to present their concept before the big bank finally said yes. Since it was pursuing an SME strategy in Switzerland, the conference was attractive to UBS. However, the bank recommended holding the event in Zurich or Basel, a suggestion that the two Bernese Oberlanders politely but firmly declined. Through their enthusiasm, they subsequently persuaded Swisscom and PwC to commit to the project as well. The three main sponsors were thus in place, and they are still involved today, 25 years later!

The first SEF took place on 4 and 5 June 1999, with 480 guests coming together in Thun. The majority represented SMEs in the Bernese Oberland and the greater Bern area. They heard from keynote speaker Marcel Ospel, along with Roger Schawinski and Vreni Spoerry, a member of the Zurich Council of States. For the evening meal, Stähli and Linder had come up with a little stunt involving a surprise visit to the Jungfraujoch. In the engine shed at Kleine Scheidegg, the jury announced the inaugural winner of the Swiss Economic Award for young entrepreneurs – the company Cytos from Schlieren. The Jungfrau Railway then transported 460 people up into the realm of the glaciers. They didn’t return until around midnight and most participants can’t have got to bed before 2 am.

You can read about what happened next in Chronicle 4 – and the SEF story in full in the SEF25 magazine, which will be published to coincide with the anniversary edition of the Swiss Economic Forum 2023.

Text and research: Felix E. Müller