Thomas Minder: The man who has the fat cats of Switzerland in his sights

Citizens will vote in a referendum on Sunday to decide if enterprises should operate with a more egalitarian mindset
  • @peterpopham

Thomas Minder’s business was nearly destroyed when Swissair came close to bankruptcy 12 years ago.

The airline immediately reneged on a $537,000 (£354,000) contract with the Minder family’s toiletry firm, pushing it to the brink. But it was when the former chief executive of Swissair received a huge payoff that Thomas Minder got really angry. Now, he stands on the verge of getting even.

Outraged at the way big business incompetence is rewarded with huge payments, he secured 100,000 signatures for a petition against excessive corporate pay. And on Sunday, a referendum will be held in Switzerland that, if passed, will force listed companies to hold binding votes among their shareholders on pay for managers and directors. It will also ban golden handshakes and parachutes, and the payment of bonuses to managers when their companies are taken over. And the new law will have real teeth, enshrined in the Swiss constitution and mandating huge fines and jail sentences of up to three years for breaches of the rules.

In a recent poll the proposal got the backing of 57 per cent of voters. It feeds into widespread outrage in this traditionally egalitarian country at the importation of what are seen as American ideas of corporate governance. For many the decision of the pharmaceutical giant Novartis to pay its outgoing chairman $77m spread over six years on the condition he did not take a job with its rivals was the last straw. “This does enormous damage to social cohesion in our country,” Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said.

Mr Minder’s business in the north-eastern canton of Schaffhausen, Trybol AG, sells herbal toothpaste and toiletries. Founded in Switzerland in 1900, the company made a virtue of its Swissness, aligning itself with the country’s reputation for attention to detail. The deal with Swissair – once known as the “Flying Bank” due to its financial health – was a source of pride. Swissair fell victim to the massive contraction in the airline industry in the aftermath of the 11 September terror attacks and its fleet was grounded. Trybol was eventually saved when Lufthansa came to the airline’s rescue. But when the Swissair chief executive in charge during the crisis, Mario Corti, received $13m despite failing to keep the planes in the sky, Mr Minder was incensed.

Home to the most prosperous population in Europe, with net financial assets of nearly $148,000 per person, Switzerland also has deep-rooted ideas of fairness and equality.

“Even though Swiss people earn good money and have a high average salary, we also have a strong traditional feeling about what is good corporate governance,” Mr Minder said. “You can have your second home, you can drive your Ferrari, you can eat beef every day, but Swiss people are middle class, with no extreme highs or lows.”

In 2008, Mr Minder brought his rage to the nation’s attention when he stormed the podium at a shareholders’ meeting of his bank, UBS, while its chairman, Marcel Ospel, was speaking. The bank had been forced to seek a government bailout after losing $50bn during the financial meltdown. “Gentlemen, you are responsible for the biggest write-down in Swiss corporate history,” he said.

Three years later he became an independent MP and author of a referendum proposal that has thrown big Swiss business into paroxysms of anxiety. The Economiesuisse lobbying group has splashed around eight million francs (£5.6m) on an advertising campaign intended to kill the proposal, warning that big business will up stakes and move abroad if the referendum passes.