A Conversation with Florence Schurch, Secretary General SUISSENÉGOCE

Good morning, Florence, and welcome to Commodity Conversations. Please tell me about your role as Secretary General at SUISSENÉGOCE.

My role is to promote Switzerland’s shipping and commodity trading sector by working with local and federal authorities and communicating on the industry. Another critical role of the Association is to educate the next generation by providing training courses to prepare young people and adults for entering the industry.

We do not engage in commodity trading. My team comprises individuals with expertise in communications, politics, government, human resources, and training courses.

From your LinkedIn profile, I see that you spent five years at the Swiss Embassy in Washington, two years with the Swiss Consulate in Germany, and 11 years with the Geneva government in public affairs. You joined SUISSENÉGOCE in February 2020. What attracted you to the position?

The challenge.

When I worked in Public Affairs for the Canton of Geneva, my job was to defend Geneva’s interests in Bern. The position was challenging. Geneva is far from Bern geographically and mentally; we are often more “French” than Swiss.

I always thought that if I should do the same job in the private sector, it would have to be in a challenging industry.

What did you learn in your previous roles that’s helping you now?

Many things. The most important is to engage with people throughout the entire chain of command. While the big boss makes the final decisions, others prepare the documents to be decided upon. No, sorry, let me rephrase that. They are the ones who draft the regulations and advise their ministers or superiors. You cannot effectively influence anything if you only interact with ministers and directors. You must also work with the individuals who do the actual work.

What has surprised you the most since you’ve been with SUISSENÉGOCE?

When the executive board interviewed me for the position, I told them that I had worked as a lobbyist for the Canton of Geneva, promoting the Geneva economy. However, I never encountered anything from the shipping and commodity sector on my desk.

While preparing for the interview, I Googled the names of the companies whose directors were interviewing me. I didn’t know one name.

I thought, “Why doesn’t such a significant industry communicate? Why isn’t anyone in government or authority aware of the added value of all these companies?”

Since my first day in this position, it has continued to surprise me how little people know about an industry that is essential to everyone’s everyday life.

Why does the shipping and trading sector need SUISSENÉGOCE?

The Executive Board has assigned the Association three missions.

The first is to monitor regulations, maintain communication with the authorities, and promote the sector’s interests.

Swiss politicians don’t usually interact with individual companies; they meet with associations. SUISSENÉGOCE plays a vital role by liaising between politicians and merchants, addressing any challenges members may have.

Second, the Association plays a significant role in education and training. There are many shipping and commodity trading houses in Switzerland, and they are not here only because of the banks. They are also here for a well-qualified and multilingual workforce.

It is partially thanks to the Master of Science degree in commodity trading offered at the University of Geneva and the educational and training services provided by SUISSENÉGOCE. The Association holds the EDUCA label, a Swiss standard for adult education. It means that the government can send us unemployed individuals for training. Thanks to our courses, we take pride in helping unemployed people secure employment in the trading industry.

Third, there is our role in communication. When interacting with the media, the Association speaks on behalf of the entire industry rather than a specific company. If journalists have questions about a company, we tell them to call that company. We will never answer anything related to a particular company.

Do you spend more time defending the sector or promoting it?

Proactively promoting the industry is a crucial aspect of the Association’s mission. I tell our members to avoid being defensive in their communications and adopt a more proactive approach. We must demonstrate the value that commodity merchants add.

People listen to the dogs that bark the loudest. It’s a challenge to counter misinformation. Brandolini’s law, also known as the bullshit asymmetry principle, emphasises the effort required to debunk misinformation compared to the relative ease of creating it. Refuting misinformation can be time-consuming and resource-intensive, making it challenging to address an issue effectively.

People have moved on by the time you have corrected the information; it’s too late. That’s why it is more important to promote the industry.

What advice would you give to your members?

Communicate, communicate, communicate, promote the sector, promote the industry. Explain the use and the necessity of what you do for everybody in everyday life.

Always be willing to talk to the media and always tell the truth, even if you may be unable to tell journalists everything.

In June 2023, you changed the organisation’s name from STSA, Swiss Trading and Shipping Association, to SUISSENÉGOCE. Why?

I didn’t like the fact that STSA was an acronym. The Association has existed for over ten years, but no one outside the industry knew what STSA meant.

The Association’s mission is to interact outside the industry – with the authorities and the public. A name easily understood by a wider audience is essential for fulfilling this job.

Aren’t you worried that the new name – as it is in French – excludes the Swiss-German part of Switzerland?

It doesn’t exclude it at all. German-speaking companies were part of the working group that chose the new name. They preferred the name in French rather than in German.

The French have a variety of words for a commodity trader: Marchand, Négociant, and Commerçant. The Germans have only one word for a commodity trader, Rohstoffhändler, which carries a somewhat pejorative connotation.

When I started at Cargill long ago, my first business card showed me as a merchant, not a trader.

So, let’s go back to the fundamentals.

Commodity trading companies add increased value when events occur, such as droughts, floods, or war. These times often coincide with higher food prices, resulting in heightened criticism of the sector. How do you communicate during these periods?

The past few years have been characterised by volatile markets due to factors such as insecurity, wars, and sanctions. Countries have shown a willingness to secure their supply of commodities by purchasing them in advance. Additionally, wars have disrupted supply chains and contributed to market instability and inflation. These challenging times have highlighted the expertise of commodity merchants in navigating these complex situations. We were never short of coffee, wheat, gas, or electricity.

Climate change has also impacted commodity markets, leading to reduced crops and higher prices. Price increases are primarily driven by scarcity rather than increased profits for merchants. Higher crop prices can also lead to higher financing and operating costs for merchants, potentially reducing their margins.

Don’t forget that wheat prices rose after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but they have since fallen. Wheat is now cheaper than it was before the war. However, if you go to the store or bakery, bread is still as expensive as it was when prices were raised just after the beginning of the war.

How do sustainability and human rights add to your workload? Do you have specific challenges in communicating on them?

It is essential that Swiss companies, or companies located in Switzerland, adhere to Swiss laws and regulations.

In 2020, the Swiss population voted in favour of the Responsible Business Initiative (RBI). The ordonnance came into force in 2022 and requires that companies provide reports on child labour and metals and minerals originating from conflict zones.

Over the past three years, the Association has organised training courses and workshops where we invited the Swiss government to explain what they expected from the companies.

I’m concerned about SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises); they do not have the workforce to implement all regulations that the government requests in their business. They do their best to monitor their supply chain, and the Association tries to support them as much as we can. Large multinationals do not have this problem; they have teams of ESG and CSR officers.

It is challenging for SMEs to comply with all the new EU and Swiss regulations, but they have no choice. The banks do due diligence to ensure that their clients are compliant and do not finance non-compliant companies.

Meeting these new regulations involves a significant investment in time and money for SMEs. I would like the authorities to be aware of this.

Do you know if Swiss companies must comply with the European Deforestation Regulations, the EUDR? It’s a big issue in Europe.

Non-EU companies – including Swiss – do not have a choice if they want to import coffee, cocoa, palm oil, soya beans, timber, etc into EU countries. They must comply with this new regulation. The question is how Switzerland will react to maintain its competitiveness in the Swiss economy.

How are the Russian sanctions impacting Swiss companies? Are commodity companies moving to Dubai as a result?

As I mentioned, our member companies in Switzerland must follow the rules. If a company wants to continue to trade Russian oil or other sanctioned goods, it must move outside of Switzerland.

Women comprise about one-third of the Swiss agricultural commodity supply chain workforce. How can commodity trading companies attract more women to the sector?

We would all like to see more women in the commodity industry, but not only in HR, communication and ESG.

In September, at the last intake of the Geneva master’s program, 40 per cent of the students were female—the more girls in the class, the more women in the industry.

We must show girls that the commodity trading industry is open to women; it will take time, but we will succeed.

Is there anything that you would like to add?

We have talked about trading, but I want to talk about shipping.

In all the recent crises, whether wars or pandemics, we forget the seafarers. Swiss companies operate 22 per cent of the world’s vessel fleet. There are two million seafarers in the world. It means that Swiss companies employ 400,000 seafarers. It’s a lot.

The seafarers work all year round, bringing us everything we need. They transport over 90 per cent of the goods and commodities traded internationally. They are under attack from pirates. Hostile countries take them hostage.

We can support seafarers by talking about them and reminding people that without them, they wouldn’t have the cup of coffee they drink in front of their computers. They wouldn’t even have a laptop or the clothes they wear. The cotton would still be sitting in a warehouse somewhere.

Journalists have been calling us recently about the attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, worried that they will cause delays and make things more expensive. But what about the seafarers? No one is interested in talking about their safety and well-being.

Can you tell me something about yourself that isn’t on your LinkedIn profile?

I’m a happy and proud mum of a twelve-year-old son who is doing very well at school, thanks in large part to the support and dedication of his grandparents.

Thank you, Florence, for your time and comments.

© Commodity Conversations ® 2024

This is part of a series, Commodity Professionals – The People Behind The Trade.

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