Klaus Schwab: The secret of Schwab's success

A day in the life: Everyone queues to shake the hand of the man who chairs the World Economic Forum.
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The Independent Online


Forget world peace. If Klaus Schwab could bottle the elixir that gets him out of bed long before dawn has broken over the snowy Swiss mountains and through a gruelling day of meetings with the world's most influential people then he would truly have earned himself a place in history. It is day two of the World Economic Forum's annual meeting and Mr Schwab, executive chairman and founder of the not-for-profit foundation, has a packed agenda even by his terms. Fortunately the Swiss philanthropist, who has a list of honours, degrees and achievements even longer than his schedule, does not tire easily.

Although Davos, the Alpine town where Thomas Mann wrote The Magic Mountain, has been Mr Schwab's spiritual home since he created the WEF in 1971, he does not have a house here. Instead he stays, with his wife Hilde, in the Kongress Hotel, which is smack bang next to the Congress Hall itself, the scene of all official action in Davos.


Before heading next door, however, Mr Schwab must go down the road to the Hotel Steigenberger Belvedere, site of the unofficial action that also goes on in the Swiss town. This swish five-star joint is where all of the world's leaders - political and corporate - hang out when they're not required for one of the official conference sessions. It's also the party hotspot: already staff are preparing for bashes to be hosted this evening by the likes of McKinsey, Nasdaq, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Love, a campaign started by some of the WEF's young global leaders that promises to do for climate change what Bono's Project Red has done for Aids. (As if setting up the world's biggest talking shop for established leaders wasn't enough, three years ago Mr Schwab set up another forum for hotshots under 40, who he felt could save the planet once he's gone - although at a very healthy looking 68 he says he's not planning to go anytime soon.) He is heading to a breakfast with the body's selection committee.


The professor of engineering and economics is back in his office, a glam corner affair decked out in white leather panels and furnished with gentlemen's club-style armchairs in a chocolate brown, to try to engineer a solution to a problem far removed from the world of academia: Iraq. He sits down with the four men who have agreed to take the stage for a plenary session aimed at helping the country to "unite for stability". Despite Mr Schwab's best intentions, Adil Abd al-Mahdi, the Iraqi vice-president, later tells the room that the factionalism built into the country's style of government is to blame for tearing it apart. Maybe he'll have better luck with solving the Israeli-Palestine conflict at a session this afternoon.


A series of ten-minute, back-to-back meetings with world leaders takes the man who delegates quip "puts the Oz in Davoz" (say it with a German accent ) through to his next official duty. He has to open a meeting of energy supremos at the nearby Schweizerhof Hotel. President Aliyev of Azerbaijan is there. Oil, the threat of it running out, and the damage it has done to the environment is one of the big themes running through this year's meeting.

Back in his office retreat, the focus of Mr Schwab's bilateral meetings switches from political to corporate . His tête-à-têtes are private affairs, but during the course of the event he will sit down with all the top luminaries who have made the trek to Davos. We're talking seriously important people. Rupert Murdoch, head of News International, is here, as is Bill Gates, a Davos old-timer and fellow philanthropist. Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google, is one of the meeting's co-chairman, so it's a given that he will get airtime with the Swiss man of the mountains. There are also business leaders from the developing world: Sunil Bharti Mittal, who heads the Indian telecoms conglomerate Bharti Enterprises, and Wu Ying, chief executive of UTStarcom, a Chinese technology giant among others.

"Never stress," is Mr Schwab's top tip for getting through his day. Certainly from the super-smooth way that he greets people - his introductions are legendary - stress is the last affliction you'd imagine affects him.


Time now to say hello to the speakers for another of the day's top sessions. Mohammed Khatemi, the Iranian president, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the Malaysian president, and the French minister Jean-François Cope, are among the panelists for a debate that epitomises the spirit of the WEF: "Rules for a Global Neighbourhood."

Globalisation and the challenges it brings sit at the very heart of the forum. "We have to look at globalisation in a fresh way and ask how we can make it more comprehensive in its positive effects," says Mr Schwab. He believes the WEF is more capable now than ever of achieving that, given that its membership stretches to non-governmental organisations and trade unions, which speak for some of the minorities that critics used to complain were excluded from the "spirit of Davos". Commenting on the immense breadth of participants, he adds: "Our task is to reflect the reality of the world, and the world is very complex."


Skip through a lunch or two (eating seems to go hand in hand with solving the world's problems in Davos) and Mr Schwab is walking though the Congress Hall on his way to open one of the rare sessions devoted to women. It's a private session in a small room where the bodyguards seem to outnumber the participants. He is particularly excited that the Liberian president Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson is there; last year she pulled out at the last minute after getting a better invitation - from the White House.

Moving swiftly on, he opts for an impromptu visit to the nuclear bunker (yes, really) where the WEF staff and broadcast press are based. He commends CNN for the sheer quantity of hours of coverage the US television channel produces. In the cubby hole that houses the photocopiers churning out Amazon-forest quantities of press releases, he pauses to pick up a copy of the speech that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, is to give. It's in Arabic, one of the few languages he doesn't speak, but he flicks through it anyway: "About 20 minutes worth," he guesses.


After squeezing in another meeting with a head of state (his identity is top secret), it's time for the "most important session" of the conference. Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, president Abbas and the Israeli vice premier Shimon Peres are there to seek a breakthrough. "Enough is enough" they are told by children from videos shot in Ramallah, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Despite the noble ambition, the trio fail to come up with anything new.


The flavour of the evening is set by a final plenary session: a public meeting with Mr Schwab and the Chinese state councillor Hua Jianmin. Then it's off to a "Dalian night" drinks party hosted by the Chinese region's mayor Xia Deren. Davos 07 is a conference obsessed by China. Mr Schwab's dream of spreading the message of globalisation has been far more successful than he could have ever wished or hoped for back at that first conference in 1971. Witness the two cocktail parties that follow: one hosted by the Russians and the other by the Americans. His day closes with a reception hosted by Rupert Murdoch.

Then there's barely time to catch up with some sleep before the entire whirl begins again.