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Swiss winegrower Jean Francois Riccard works in his vineyard at Lutry in the wine-growing area of Lavaux in the Lake Geneva Region, Switzerland.
Swiss winegrower Jean Francois Riccard works in his vineyard at Lutry in the wine-growing area of Lavaux in the Lake Geneva Region, Switzerland.

Value: John Warrillow

A lesson from the world's wealthiest people Add to ...

Deep in the heart of Western Europe – France to the west, Italy to the south, Germany to the north and Austria to the east – is a landlocked nation of just under eight million of the wealthiest people in the world.

One of the most fascinating elements of Switzerland’s success is its determination to remain neutral under unimaginable pressure to pick sides. The country has not declared a state of war since 1847 (it never entered the world wars or the Iraq war) and it opted out of joining the European Union.

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Despite being the birthplace of the Red Cross and having a history of peacekeeping, Switzerland did not join the United Nations until 2002, and even then it joined only after a majority – albeit a slim one – of the country voted to do so. The Swiss retain diplomatic relations with practically every country in the world and often act as an intermediary between scrapping states.

Despite what you might think of its neutral geopolitical stance, it’s hard to argue with the economic results of neutrality:

• The World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report currently ranks Switzerland's economy as the most competitive in the world.

• In 2010, the Global Wealth Report by Credit Suisse Research Institute found that Switzerland has the highest average wealth per adult at $372,692, with wealth defined by the value of financial and non-financial assets, such as real estate.

• According to Trading Economics, the worst the Swiss unemployment rate ever got during the recent worldwide financial crisis was 4.2 per cent in January, 2010. Today the unemployment rate is around 3.4 per cent.

• According to Mercer Consulting, in 2010, Zurich and Geneva were respectively ranked as the cities with the second- and third-highest quality of life in the world, behind Vienna.

The Switzerland Structure

The Swiss obsession with neutrality inspired the name of one of my core ideas for creating a valuable company. “The Switzerland Structure” is a way to evaluate your business to ensure that neutrality allows you to minimize your dependence on any one company or individual.

I’d recommend you consider The Switzerland Structure in all areas of your business:

Suppliers

If your business is dependent on one or two key suppliers – companies or independent consultants – you are at their mercy. Cultivating a bench of suppliers, on the other hand, means you will never feel beholden to anyone. Spread your business around, even if you lose some special pricing discounts. Neutrality is worth more than a few dollars in savings.

Employees

If you’re too reliant on any one employee, you are at a significant risk if that employee chooses to leave and you are at a disadvantage when it comes to negotiating salary. To avoid this situation, nurture a pool of people you want to hire. Toronto-based executive search firm IQ Partners offers a bench-building service: it actively recruits a short list of candidates who could fill your key roles so you have a bench of people to go to in the event of an employee defection.

Customers

If you’re too dependent on any one customer, your business will be highly unstable. It will be stressful to run in the short term and virtually worthless if you ever want to sell it. Try to work your customer concentration down to a point where your largest customer represents no more than 15 per cent of your revenue. You’ll sleep better at night and have a more valuable company when it comes time to sell.

What can you apply from The Switzerland Structure?

Special to The Globe and Mail

John Warrillow is a writer, speaker and angel investor in a number of start-up companies. He is the author of Built To Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You, published by Portfolio Penguin.

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