An Encounter with Herr Helmut Maucher, the legendary CEO and Chairman of Nestle
His advice to me on how to be successful as a foreigner in Switzerland.
Recently, I learned that Herr Maucher had passed away. The news made me very sad, because he had an important influence on my life. I had a fortuitous encounter with him, I think it must have been in 1985, about one year after my arrival in Switzerland. By then Herr Maucher was already the CEO of Nestle and a celebrity due to the success of his powerful acquisition strategy in the Carnation deal.
We met in a train from Vevey to Zurich on a day when I was not supposed to be on a train at all. At the time I was working with a Project Finance Consulting firm at Mont Pelerin, a small town atop a mountain overlooking the city of Vevey and Lake Geneva, where I was responsible for interesting projects in diverse places: in Israel, Kenya, and Egypt, amongst others.
It was a Friday and I was naturally eager to go home to Zurich. So I quickly left my office and took a hazardous shortcut downhill to save some miles before hitting the highway. A short distance from my office, upon turning around a curve in steep terrain the car skidded leaving me with two choices: falling down a precipice or smashing into a rock on the other side of the road. In a split second I chose the rock and completely smashed my car, but miraculously all I got were some painful bruises on my body, leaving my face unscathed. After waiting several hours (not a lot of mobile phones around at that time) the police showed up and kindly brought me to the train station at Vevey. The officers even suggested me to take a first class ticket and assured me that they would support it with the insurance company if necessary.
After settling down in the train I started ruminating about my fate: “All this is happening because I should never have come to Switzerland. Had I stayed in Panama I would be a partner at KPMG by now.” In fact the Managing Partner had warned me about how crazy it was to leave at a time when I was scheduled to become partner in two years. “Losing this opportunity for something so uncertain in Switzerland makes no sense,” he told me.” So now I thought by myself: “It is unfair somehow; my wife never told me how difficult this was going to be. Well, maybe she didn’t know.“
The fact is that it is rough to move as a foreigner to Switzerland. My first job at Moevenpick as Director of Strategic Planning taught me just that: Although my professional work was highly appreciated and respected, I couldn’t be really effective, as I could not communicate with colleagues and staff at work. Despite the firm’s international activities amazingly few people in the company had any knowledge of English at the time, all meetings and all communication were still in Swiss German dialect. So on my fateful train trip I said to myself: “I can’t go back to Panama and admit defeat, on the other hand I can’t stay here with no future in this remote place at Mont Pelerin, I need to go back to Zurich.” Thoughts like these and many more were going through my head when I spotted another passenger in the train. It was late and the train was empty except for this other person and me. “This man seems Mr. Maucher, the CEO of Nestle,” I thought, “but that can’t be, a person like him would not be travelling alone in the middle of the night.” Now my attention was split between ruminating about my situation and wondering if the man sitting on the other side of the train was indeed the CEO of Nestle. After a while I mustered the courage to walk over to him and ask him, if he was Mr. Maucher. “Yes,” he answered, “and who are you?”
I told him that some years ago I was at a presentation on Nestle’s strategy that he gave at Harvard Business School to Michael Porter’s students. “Yes, I remember, it was a couple of years ago,” he said. “Where are you going?” he asked. “To Zurich?
Oh, me too,” he said. “Come sit here so we can talk, time goes faster that way.” (It was a train ride of almost three hours.)
We started talking about his work and how very early when he became CEO he saw the need for two things: to rein in costs as Nestle had a huge bureaucracy in need of improving its productivity and to figure out ways to keep the company growing. So he thought that an acquisition strategy was a good way to expand, grow and gain market share. He told me that once he had determined to acquire Carnation he moved fast to carry it out. In the case of Carnation, a 3 billion dollar deal, it was done in less than a month. “Just move fast, if you believe in it,” he said. We kept talking about the job of a CEO which for him meant for example not asking people to do things you are not capable of doing yourself such as turning around a business and knowing your numbers. “You don’t need sophisticated accounting systems,” he argued, “just enough to understand your business”. His comment reminded me of my uncles and my dad who were CPAs and always insisted on the need to be able to read the numbers. He also explained to me his philosophy on motivation and personal balance: “One of the keys to motivate one’s people is fairness in all aspects, including compensation.” In answer to my question how he managed the pressure of his work he replied: “It’s important to find time-out. I play the violin and I like to go to my home on Lake Constance where I can have time-out to gain perspective.”
“What a great guy,” I thought, “a cultivated, unpretentious, even humble and highly intelligent human being running one of the largest firms of the world and talking to me, a young man with an uncertain future. Wow, this is the role model for being a humane and effective CEO.”
He then asked about me. I told him that I was living in Switzerland because of my Swiss wife whom I had met while we were both working in Latin America. “After being transferred to Panama, my country of origin, and working there for two years my wife wanted to return to Switzerland where she thought we both could have a career. We moved, me leaving behind a successful career as a Senior Manager with KPMG and scheduled for promotion to partner in two years. And now I am here, after leaving voluntarily a top position in Zurich as director of planning at a Swiss hotel and restaurant chain because without knowing German I couldn’t communicate with the other executives. At present I am working in Mont Pelerin because I know French, so it is easier for me here, but the inconvenience is that I have to travel back and forth to Zurich every week. And today,” I told Mr. Maucher, “driving back to Zurich I had a terrible accident that almost cost me my life. Just before we started to talk I was in a deeply ruminative mood thinking that maybe it was a bad idea coming to Switzerland and asking myself what I should I do now as returning to Panama defeated is not an alternative.”
He then said: “It’s going to be tough, but you can make it. You need to understand and do a couple of things. First of all you need to have a ‘thick skin’. Because you are a foreigner people will try to put you down based on superficial things such as your accent, complexion, and so forth. You need to keep a cool head when this happens – and it certainly will – and you must gain strength by thinking that if that is all what people find to criticize you, you are actually doing ok: it means that they haven’t found anything in your performance to really harm you.” He added: “In fact, I am also victim of that. People often say things about me like ‘oh, he is doing this or that because he is German.’ You should never take a staff position like the one you got before in Moevenpick as director of planning. Because of your reality as a foreigner you need a position where you can show your contribution and the best way to do that is having a line position, a job where you can clearly demonstrate that you either bring more revenues to the firm or reduce costs, in order words you need an opportunity to prove the positive impact of your work on the P&L (profit and loss statement).”
“And finally,” he said, “don’t do politics. You can’t do it well anyway because you are not from here. Politics is for those who can’t demonstrate their value. Stay out of gossip and be clear in your interactions with your clients, your employees and your boss.”
By now we had arrived at Zurich main station and were walking to the exit, two tall men, and as we shook hands to bid farewell, he said: “You are going to make it.” “How do you know?” I asked. He answered: “Because for over two hours, while we were talking on the train, you never showed your distress despite the trauma of a near-fatal car accident. This means you can handle stress well, and most importantly,” he said, “you are a very respectful person. You came over to me and obviously need a job, but during our entire conversation you never mentioned anything that could remotely suggest that you are either soliciting or exploring a job opportunity at Nestle. Here is my business card and here is the phone of my private assistant. You can send me your CV and I make sure that it lands in the right hands.”
Upon these words we parted company. He continued his trip to his house on Lake Constance to relax as he would do as often as he could and I went home elated despite the trauma of the car accident, having spent almost three hours talking to one of the world’s most powerful CEOs who gave me some of the most important advice in my life that proved to be crucial for my future in Switzerland.
I never sent my CV to Nestle. I found an entry job at UBS below my qualifications and academic credentials but a year later I was already moving up by following Mr. Maucher’s advice: I accepted a job as head of a unit that no one else wanted because it was very difficult to pull it off, but I saw the potential for proving my capabilities and produce positive numbers. Working with my team my unit became a profit-generating engine. Amongst other I initiated a basic, uncomplicated reporting system giving my bosses data about the performance of my unit in regular intervals and I never got into politics, gaining the full trust of my clients, employees and superiors (what I indeed needed given the complex work we were doing). A couple of years later I was in a senior management position, one of the first non-Swiss to reach that level at the time. Until today I follow his advice.
Rest in peace, Herr Maucher. You never knew, but my encounter with you was fundamental for my life. Thank you!
See article in Financial Times:
 Mont Pelerin, perched on a mountain slope above the city of Vevey is also the domicile of the Mont Pelerin Society founded by F. Hayek, M. Friedman, F. Knight, K. Popper, L. Von Misses and G. Stigler amongst others and dedicated to the values of freedom of expression, free market economic policies and the political values of an open society.
 M. Porter, professor at Harvard Business School and author of the groundbreaking book Competitive Strategy