Swiss Artisans Automate to Survive

by swisscham in BUSINESS NEWS

Forster is co-chief executive officer of Forster Rohner AG, a 113-year-old company in the eastern city of St. Gallen that produces fabric that can cost thousands of dollars per yardÑincluding material he says was used in the dress British socialite Pippa Middleton wore at her wedding in May. Forster Rohner is among dozens of Swiss textile producers that have managed to survive, and even thrive, despite wages that are among the worldÕs highest and a currency thatÕs risen 50 percent against the euro since 2008. ÒItÕs clear that we donÕt think the strong franc is great,Ó says Forster, a great-grandson of the companyÕs founder. ÒBut our creative brainpower really comes from our site in Switzerland.Ó The key is combining the countryÕs history of quality workmanship with its tradition of innovation: automating where it makes sense and doing only the most intricate pieces by handÑwhile exporting lower-value work to less expensive locales. The company employs 250 people in St. GallenÑwhere unemployment is just 2.5 percentÑand has 640 workers in factories in China and Romania crafting material for lower-cost clothing. ÒIt is encouraging to produce something unique in Switzerland that you canÕt find elsewhere,Ó Forster says. ÒYou canÕt have China without St. Gallen, and vice versa. ItÕs a system in which each part has its own function. And the function of Switzerland is clear: driving innovation and design.Ó

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