St. Gallen Symposium 2008

I spent a splendid five days last week in St. Gallen, Switzerland participating in the 38th St. Gallen Symposium, a conference where 200 students interact with 600 business and political leaders from around the world. This year’s theme was "Global Capitalism – Local Values."

Students must write an essay on the theme and the 200 best are invited to attend, all expenses paid. This ensures not only high quality students (majority grad students, some undergrads) but also a stunning level of diversity. This year, there were students from 50 different countries studying business, economics, philosophy, psychology, and more.

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The first two days the students spent alone to mingle, chat, and participate in a couple workshops facilitated by UBS and PwC. The second day was set in the alps at Santis mountain. It was wonderful to have a conversation with smart, young people from every point of the globe with catered food and the backdrop of huge Swiss, snowy alps. I came away from these conversations feeling incredibly optimistic about things — if you ever feel down on the state of the world, go talk to motivated students!

My time in St. Gallen reaffirmed for me my interest in internationalism, travel, business, and people. And youth. It was terrific to spend time with people around my own age (all under 30). For me, there’s still no more exciting moment than hearing about someone’s culture, or someone’s funny travel experience abroad. One night, at a four-course dinner sponsored by a Swiss watch maker, everyone at the seven person table went around and shared tidbits on their country, their thoughts on current affairs, educational system, or funny experiences from third world (or first world) countries. The wine was flowing — but so was the mutual understanding and cultural exchange. I know what I just said sounds cliche, but as I’ve said before, to me, all the cliches about travel are true.

Here were some of my key insights / notes from my conversations and the various speakers and sessions:

  • Martin Wolf, of the Financial Times, is not only an impressive columnist, but also dynamic and humorous speaker. He was probably the most impressive speaker of the bunch (out of two country presidents and numerous company CEOs). The FT, by the way, was the most cited news source throughout the conference. Some Wolf quotes:
    • "Success breeds excess, and excess breeds panic."
    • "The new financial system was supposed to allocate risk to those best able to take it. Instead, it got allocated to those least able to understand it."
    • "Revolutions tend to eat its children."
    • "For CEOs, we are living in the era of ‘mea culpa.’"
    • "Telling yourself, ‘This time is different’ is hard-wired into the human psyche. During every bubble people tell themselves this."
  • Private oil companies produce only 5% of world oil; national oil companies produce the rest.
  • Credit Suisse risk management guy: "We have great risk-management models. The problem is when we start believing them. The key is to only do things you understand, and when in doubt, assume you don’t understand."
  • World is getting more unpredictable. Quick decision making is key. Decide, iterate, decide, iterate.
  • Food security is helped by interdependence in global food markets. On rising food prices, we can’t ignore basic fact that China and others are increasing demand.
  • Al Jazeera anchor: "One day we woke up and, Oh my God!, there’s a food crisis. What about the lead up? Why suddenly a food crisis? Is this "crisis" going to just be flavor of the month?" True. Also, how does the media decide which "crisis" to focus on? Malaria continues to kill in record numbers, and yet, when was the last time you heard a story about the malaria "crisis"?
  • "Made in X" is no longer an appropriate tag to place on products. Even if something is "Made in China," the distribution, assembly, creativity thought, etc all likely happened in various countries. "Made in the World" is a better label. Globalization is no longer centered around a city.
  • The Swiss airlines CEO – Christoph Franz – was super impressive and I was lucky to be able to participate in a long workshop with him and others on the aviation industry. Among other nuggets, he noted that while Southwest Airlines is heralded in the U.S. as the most successful airline, most of their profits are due to a fuel price hedge made seven years ago. They haven’t been operationally profitable for years. Swiss airlines, on the other hand, has done quite well, thanks mostly to new ownership under Lufthansa and elimination of non-premium routes (they focus on routes from Zurich that cater to business fliers). Franz also noted the insanity of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the States — it allows airlines to float in and out of bankruptcy without facing the hard truths. Unlikely US air travel will improve anytime soon thanks to an aging fleet.

I can safely say that this conference was the most well organized event I’ve been to. I suppose it helps when you can draft hundreds of students of a university (St. Gallen) to help produce the event and manage logistics. But it’s also a testament to the Swiss culture of organization and precision. Needless to say, if you have the opportunity to go to an event put on by the Swiss, go!

I am very grateful to the St. Gallen Symposium for including me in this event.

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