“The soul of mankind is like water: from heaven coming, to heaven rising, again descending – as it must – earthwards, ever circling.” Anyone driving out from the city of Thun to the lake, with the mountains of the Bernese Oberland ahead, sometimes finds themselves dreaming just like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe did in 1779, when he put the poem “Gesang der Geister über den Wassern” (Song of the Spirits over the Waters) to paper. More than two hundred years later, Thun found itself in the midst of a profound economic structural change. Three events rattled the region in quick succession in 1991. First, the Selve metal works, part of the landscape since time immemorial, shuttered up. Hundreds of jobs disappeared. Then in September of that year, the military announced a thousand jobs would go in the garrison town.
The third blow came just weeks later: the Spar- und Leihkasse Thun bank had overstretched itself in its real estate business and had to close its counters for the last time. Images of queues of small savers trying in vain to withdraw their savings were flashed around the world as a bank run just seemed inconceivable in Switzerland, a country synonymous with the banking industry. Helplessness, dejection and resignation spread across the region, especially as the recession, which gripped Switzerland at the time, hit the Bernese Oberland harder than much of the rest of the country. The rather conservative and set-in-its-ways Thun was confronted with the task of kick-starting a structural change in its economy. The city mayor at the time, Hans-Ueli von Allmen, a member of the Swiss Social Democratic Party, was determined to drive this process forward and follow the famous adage that every crisis is an opportunity. New ideas were needed. One of the measures he took was to set up an association called “Imageförderung Thun” to promote Thun’s image. Its head, Melchior Buchs, suggested associating Thun with the theme of young entrepreneurship.
Independently of this, the Forum of Young Enterprises Thun – also known as the Junior Chamber of Commerce Thun – which has been operating for years, floated the idea of holding young entrepreneur seminars with the aim of promoting and facilitating the founding of start-ups. The two organisations decided to make common cause and organise an event in Thun to highlight entrepreneurial opportunities and share entrepreneurial knowledge. No sooner said than done, the Forum first took place in October 1993 at Seepark Thun training centre. Two hundred participants listened to numerous speakers over one-and-a-half days. The forerunner of the Swiss Economic Forum was a success – and provided the impetus resulting in one of the most important business conferences in Switzerland.
You can read about what happened next in Chronicle 2 – and in full in the SEF25 magazine, which will be published in the anniversary edition of the Swiss Economic Forum 2023.
Text and research: Felix E. Müller