Foreign equity barons give Swiss jitters

The elusive Vekselberg has recently revealed himself (Reuters)

A spate of company takeover activity by foreign equity firms has sparked a debate in Switzerland about the intentions behind the deals.

This content was published on February 2, 2007 minutes

Two investment groups, backed by Russian and Austrian billions, appear poised to swallow a large segment of the Swiss manufacturing industry having already established a foothold in the sector.

The Austrian enterprise Victory first made its first move two years ago buying up technology firm Unaxis and renaming it OC Oerlikon and then later Oerlikon.

Last September, Victory integrated machinery manufacturers Saurer into the fold and this month raised its stake to 20.1 per cent of telecommunications company Ascom.

In addition, Russian-backed venture capitalist group Renova increased its interest in Oerlikon from ten per cent to 13.8 per cent of shares last week, while hinting that this stake could be increased further in future.

Both Victory and Renova have made it known that they are casting their eyes over further targets. Speaking to the Weltwoche magazine, Renova boss Viktor Vekselberg said he is in contact with other unnamed Swiss firms.

"We are holding talks with other Swiss companies for whom we should be able to open doors in Russia. We will highlight our commitment to these companies by investing in them," he said.

Industrial logic?

Oerlikon and Saurer have the potential to make half a billion euros of business in Russia, he added.

Vekselberg would not say which firms he wanted to draw into his "long term industrial strategy", but speculation has been centred on industrial pump manufacturers Sulzer.

However, the speed and scale of the takeovers has caused some concern at Swissmem, the manufacturing industry's umbrella organisation.

"It is not important whether the investors are Swiss or not, but if they have clear strategies that are logical for the manufacturing industry," said Swissmem president Johann Schneider-Ammann.

Zurich Cantonal Bank analyst Armin Rechberger told swissinfo that the takeovers were sending out mixed signals to the market.

"There appears to be little industrial logic in putting together Oerlikon, Saurer and Sulzer. There is almost no overlap and very few synergies," he said. "It is a little bit scary that so many big companies are targets for foreign investors."

Building bridges

He added that the cash-rich Swiss manufacturing firms with full order books made tempting targets for venture capitalists looking to make a fat return on their billions.

But Beatrice Lombard, head of the newly formed Swiss Russian Forum Foundation, believes Russian investment should be welcomed in Switzerland.

"In Switzerland, just as in the rest of Europe, markets are full and cannot grow any more. So we need access to Russia's markets, and this could help build bridges between the two countries," she told swissinfo.

"Oerlikon Space [a division of Oerlikon making equipment for spacecraft] is a great example. Unlike Russia, Switzerland has no space programme so it is vital to get access to Russian expertise and universities."

swissinfo, Matthew Allen

In brief

Viktor Vekselberg is Russia's fifth wealthiest individual, with a personal fortune of SFr8.1 billion ($6.52 billion) made in oil and aluminium. He lives in Switzerland and has recently bought a luxury apartment in Zurich.

Victory Holding is controlled by Austrian investors Ronny Pecik and Georg Stumpf.

According to the Zurich cantonal authorities, ten Russian firms set up in Switzerland last year with 20 others expressing an interest in the near future.

Russian direct inward investment has been accompanied by a rise in the number of Russians living in Switzerland. There are presently about 9,000 compared with 4,600 in 1995.

Russian tourists brought around SFr120 million into Switzerland last year.

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