Well-heeled but humble: lessons from setting up a business in Switzerland

Zurich, Switzerland

British firm Ten Lifestyle Group added a Zurich office to its 22-strong international portfolio in 2015. Its founder and CEO, Alex Cheatle, shares what he’s learnt about doing business in Switzerland

You’d never guess by looking at its citizens’ Instagram feeds – images of jet-setting Gucci-clad influencers wearing watches made from moon dust are thin on the ground – but Switzerland is the world’s richest country in terms of average wealth per adult.

While conspicuous consumption is not the done thing here, the Swiss certainly aren’t afraid to splash the cash. So says Alex Cheatle, founder and CEO of Ten Lifestyle Group, a British firm providing concierge services to two million well-heeled clients worldwide.

“Ironically, in a nation looking after the world’s wealth, it’s considered gauche to show off,” he says. “We may not buy many designer handbags for our Swiss members, but we do book them exclusive restaurants and trips to exotic destinations. They just won’t arrive weighed down in bling.”

These humble-yet-high-net-worth citizens make Switzerland a highly attractive market for his company, which set up in Zurich, the nation’s financial heart, in 2015.

Employing a local manager to run the office has been integral to the firm’s success here, says Cheatle, who has a Swiss wife and, therefore, more knowledge than most of the cultural nuances between the UK and Switzerland.

“Try to hire a Swiss leader here, rather than sending someone out from your head office,” he advises British firms seeking a foothold in Switzerland. “The Swiss like doing business with other Swiss people. They have extremely high standards and trust each other more.”

Cheatle reports that he initially found it hard to recruit local talent, as the Swiss tend to be reluctant to chop and change jobs. He adds that, even when you do attract candidates, “you won’t find people available to start work next week, as they’ll often need to give their employer three months’ notice.”

Due diligence

The firm also had to address the cautious nature of many potential recruits, as Cheatle explains: “The Swiss will want to know everything about your firm before they join. They’ll research you in the way that a Swiss private bank will research a client. It’s worth producing a fact sheet with everything they need to know about you. But, once you’ve earned their trust, they are wonderfully loyal.”

Switzerland’s long tradition of vocational education – about two-thirds of 15- to 19-year-olds do apprenticeships – is something that British firms should consider when setting up here. Indeed, Ten Lifestyle Group offers apprenticeships at its Zurich office.

“Many Swiss people evaluate you on whether you have an apprenticeship scheme. If you’re going to set up a business of scale, you should consider it,” Cheatle advises.

Ten Lifestyle Group employs 60 people in Zurich, which has consistently ranked below only Vienna in Mercer’s regular surveys comparing the quality of life offered by more than 230 cities around the world.

“The Swiss are very fixed on their quality of life outside work,” Cheatle notes. “Forget about running a 24/7 business here. The British culture of ‘let’s work at the weekend or late tonight’ is considered unprofessional and an intrusion into people’s personal lives. That said, the Swiss are super-efficient when they are at work.”

He adds: “Once you embrace their attention to detail, direct talking and high standards, the Swiss are wonderful people to deal with. It might take longer to win the contract, but once it’s sealed, you’re in for a long time.”

IoD members can read further advice on trading in Switzerland in the December 2019 / January 2020 issue of Director magazine. Click here to access the digital edition

Nicola Mendelsohn


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About author

Christian Koch

Christian Koch

Alongside his work for Director, Christian has written features for the Evening Standard, The Guardian, Sunday Times Style, The Independent, Q, Cosmopolitan, Stylist, ShortList and Glamour in an eclectic career which has seen him interview everybody from Mariah Carey to Michael Douglas through to Richard Branson with newspaper assignments including reporting on the Japanese tsunami and living with an Italian cult.

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