Aude Pugin, CEO of APCO and President of the Vaud Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CVCI), deplores the lack of political courage in Switzerland. “We no longer dare to speak of growth, but only of consensus themes,” emphasizes the leader, who is mainly active in the space industry, an area in which Switzerland plays an important role.
This content was published on December 10, 2021 – 10:12 am
The Ariane 6 rockets, everyone has heard of them, but few people know that for these spacecraft a large number of highly specialized elements have been developed and supplied by an SME from Vaud, in this case APCO Technologies.
More generally, the Swiss aerospace sector is of often unsuspected significance: according to the umbrella federation AEROSUISSE, this branch employs 120,000 people and creates an annual added value of 16.6 billion francs, or about 2.5% of the Swiss GDP.
Founded in 1992, APCO Technologies is a 100% exporting SME specializing not only in aerospace, but also in energy and the marine industry. This family business with 400 employees is located in Aigle, in the canton of Vaud, but also has two subsidiaries in France, in Chalon-sur-Saône and Kourou, in French Guiana. APCO is also present in the United States and the United Kingdom. Interview in Aigle with Aude Pugin, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) since 2017.
swissinfo.ch: APCO is active in three very different areas. With which common thread?
Aude Pugin: All our activities rely on the same fundamental skills: the realization of tailor-made industrial projects in complex environments.
We are active in highly regulated sectors and have know-how in traceability, documentation and above all quality. This last element is essential as we design and manufacture equipment for sensitive applications. The verification of this equipment when leaving our workshops must be complete as a repair can be very restrictive or even impossible. This is especially the case in space.
Finally, the fact that our activities are spread over three sectors allows us to reduce our workload and cross-finance.
Series: Women at the helm
Women are still largely underrepresented in the upper echelons of the economy. For example, the 20 companies listed on the Swiss stock exchange’s flagship index, the SMI, have only 13% of executives in their management. Switzerland is a poor student in international comparison in this area. During this year, SWI swissinfo.ch decided to give the floor to the heads of Swiss companies whose activities are spread all over the world. Representatives of the Swiss economy addressing the most pressing challenges currently affecting their operations, between the coronavirus crisis and Switzerland’s place in the globalized economy.
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How have you been affected by the pandemic?
To date, the health crisis has had little impact on our operations. In the energy and shipbuilding industry, we have barely resorted to partial unemployment for one to two months. As for our space division, we even worked overtime during the first wave to fulfill certain satellite contracts.
But due to travel restrictions, we were unable to visit our customers as we would have liked. This lack of direct exchanges – for nearly two years – hampers innovation and project prospects. This is already having an impact on our future order book.
Will the major recovery plans, especially in Europe and the United States, have a positive effect on your company’s progress?
They will certainly have an effect, but let us not forget that these recovery plans are mainly aimed at giving a new impulse and favoring the economies and industry of the countries concerned. However, the nuclear revival announced by France and the two – and soon four – nuclear power plants under construction in the United Kingdom are great opportunities for us.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of an independent family business versus a publicly traded company with distributed ownership?
In our company, the family is fully involved in the operations and this allows us to make quick decisions with full knowledge of the facts. The fact that we don’t have to have decisions approved by a board of directors gives us a certain agility.
In addition, no operational decisions are made to improve the aesthetics of our near-term financial results. Some customers need access to our accounts, but they only want to measure our strength, not our growth.
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of a family business, unlike large groups, is less economies of scale and more fluctuating business volume due to access to a smaller company.
Do you regularly receive takeover offers, for example from private equity funds or foreign conglomerates?
Very rarely, because we have stated – unequivocally and several times – that our family business is not for sale. We absolutely want to maintain our independence.
All your customers are located abroad, mostly in Europe. Relations between Switzerland and the European Union (EU) are undoubtedly crucial for APCO…
In general, good relations between Switzerland and the EU are essential. And the current tensions are a real sword of Damocles because insularity doesn’t foster innovation; moreover, the latter is already declining in our country.
As far as APCO’s space activities are concerned, Switzerland is fortunately a founding member of the European Space Agency and this guarantees us access to the European space market. But space is becoming a real communication and connectivity infrastructure: access to satellite data will therefore become more and more fundamental and this can only be done by working together with the EU.
In the field of energy, we work for EDF (Electricité de France), both in France and the United Kingdom. Finally, to date we have had no problems accessing the market for our naval operations where our customers are American.
Aude Pugin in brief
Aude Pugin obtained a master’s degree in law from the University of Friborg and was admitted to the Bar of the Canton of Geneva in 2000. She then worked as a legal advisor for ten years.
Aude Pugin joined the family-owned company APCO Technologies SA in 2009 as Head of Finance, Human Resources, IT and Administration. In July 2017, she succeeded her father in the role of Chief Executive Officer (CEO).
Aude Pugin is also President of the Vaud Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CVCI) and Vice-President of the Federal Commission for Space Affairs.
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Are you satisfied with the preconditions in Switzerland?
Switzerland traditionally has excellent preconditions, but these tend to crumble. I am concerned about the lack of political courage that is emerging. We are losing interest in the economy and we no longer dare to speak of growth but only of consensus themes.
We point the finger at the economy – for example in the area of sustainability – and we seem to want to solve all the problems with new taxes and regulations rather than looking at what the economy can offer and already offers as solutions. Wealth tax is also a topic, especially for shareholders: taxing the work instrument is nonsense, especially at highly valued pre-commercial start-ups.
I think the state should pay attention to the needs of the economy because the economy will not communicate its needs in the public square, let alone find more favorable terms elsewhere.
I also encourage governments to maintain our training preconditions and catch up on our digital transformation deficit.
As a liberal, you probably want as little state interference as possible. Are you also against compensation deals when purchasing combat aircraft?
I am liberal in the sense that I do not want the state to adopt an interventionist industrial policy. But liberalism doesn’t rhyme with total laissez-faire. We have to be realistic and realize that in Europe – and even in the United States – the state strongly supports its companies, including start-ups. That’s why I’m a big believer in offset deals, especially since the defense industry is a great vector of innovation.
Are you ready for a political career?
I take a stance on political issues, but don’t want to engage in politics. In addition, the professionalization of politics is an increasing obstacle for entrepreneurs.
There are few female leaders within APCO and CVCI. Not convinced of the benefits of parity?
I strongly believe in the goal of equality and the lack of women leaders is a real problem. Women always have to do more to achieve these positions, both because they impose it on themselves and because they are asked to. We need to create the idea of equality and diversity in schools from an early age. Moreover, a woman’s career should be the joint project of a couple where everyone makes concessions to make it work.
You are trained as a lawyer. If you could go back in time, which formation would you choose?
I wouldn’t change anything, but I encourage the younger generations to choose technical paths. An ideal profile is the combination of engineering studies and a Master of Business Administration. In addition, it is important to be immersed in foreign cultures and languages from an early age. At this point I am very grateful that I was able to spend part of my childhood in the United States.
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