A portrait of Eric Schnydereric
The CEO has to set an example.

Eric Schnyder 

An engineering graduate of the Lausanne Business College (École des Cadres de Lausanne) and the College of Engineering of Saint-Imier (École d’Ingenieurs de Saint-Imier), Eric Schnyder has been the CEO of Sylvac since 2007, having joined the company in 2001. Prior to this, he also worked for Schnyder & Cie (which ultimately merged with Sylvac), first as an R&D engineer and then as CEO. This all-round athlete, who is a triathlete, enjoys cross-country skiing and golf, also holds a private pilot’s license.

7 minute read
01 July 2021

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Although the coronavirus continues to make headlines, dominating politics and company agendas alike, the new normal is starting to take shape. EY has asked many thought leaders and decision-makers to take stock and share their ideas on the next steps. Eric Schnyder, CEO of Sylvac, discusses the key role that leaders play in a crisis.
What does a standard day look like for you?

Since the beginning of the crisis, I’ve been travelling far less and I am trying to find more balance between my personal and professional life.  My schedule is a juggling act – half planned, half unplanned. I also spend half my time in meetings.

Can you describe how working from home has evolved within your company?

Working from home has always been an option at Sylvac. We simply expanded it, giving some people two or three days a week. Personally, as the CEO, I set an example, so I can’t stay locked up at home just because there’s a virus which can actually be managed by implementing preventative measures in our environment.

How would you describe the current atmosphere?

We are working almost normally, apart from when it comes to travel and meeting our end customers. We’ve seen a good recovery post 2020. In the beginning, there was a lot of anxiety from our at-risk employees, which permeated through to our work.We are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but the anxiety, both in terms of health and hygiene and economic issues, was really the main challenge we faced during this crisis. We try to ensure that we are always communicating regularly to combat this at Sylvac.

The anxiety, both in terms of health and hygiene and economic issues, was really the main challenge we faced during this crisis.
Eric Schnyder
CEO, Sylvac
Today, would you say you’ve got back to a normal state of affairs?

The volume isn’t at 100% again yet, but we’re not far off. On the other hand, we are having supply issues for certain components and raw materials.

Have you had to review your priorities in the short/medium/long term?

Yes, a bit. Quite apart from this crisis, we’re trying to prepare for the crisis that occurs every decade or so. When that arrives, we try to optimise as much as possible so that we can come out of it lean and become more efficient. This enables us to put things in perspective, redefine our priorities, take a new look at the range of products and our sales organisation. One positive element in this crisis is that we’ve been forced to make progress in using digital tools together. Ultimately, we’ve been able to be slightly more dynamic and more reactive in our discussions on an important project.

Usually, you participate in trade fairs to promote your products, and that hasn’t been possible lately, I take it?

We have done webinars, much like everyone else I suppose, and virtual exhibitions. In terms of the technical side of the products, this suffices and is going well; but on the other hand, the human contact element, which can sometimes have a huge impact on sales, is trickier to get right online.

They say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade; do you think that’s good advice?

Indeed I do, and especially for this crisis: we will continue to capitalise on the adoption of digital technology. Like every crisis, it has permitted us to refocus and cut the dead wood to come back more effective and more responsive than ever before. This period of reassessment is beneficial for us, both as a company and as human beings.

We will continue to capitalise on the adoption of digital technology.
Eric Schnyder
CEO, Sylvac
You just mentioned the anxiety of your employees, which needed to be managed – have you put any specific measures in place (communication, health, wellbeing etc.)?

Yes. We provided updates on the hygiene and economic situation regularly on WhatsApp, and that reassured people a lot. We did a survey to find out how our employees felt about the crisis two months ago, and then we organised some trips to enable us to spend time together. I think that overall, the sentiment is mostly positive. 

Speaking of our authorities, do you think they’ve managed the crisis well?

On the whole, I think the answer is yes, and what’s more, with an openness that you don’t see in all countries. Also, hats off to them for choosing the right vaccine! It wasn’t obvious which one would be the safe bet.

Do you think that the scientific establishment intervenes in political decisions too much?

I think that politicians need to take the opinions of scientists and various specialists on board to give a rounded overview. Here, we don’t ask an engineer who’s a specialist in R&D to tell our customers how to use our products.

I think that politicians need to take the opinions of scientists and various specialists on board to give a rounded overview. Here, we don’t ask an engineer who’s a specialist in R&D to tell our customers how to use our products.
Eric Schnyder
CEO, Sylvac
Have you drawn on any aid that the authorities have provided?

We’re really lucky here in Switzerland: it’s very easy to find help, maybe even too easy for some. We benefited from the standard COVID credit. We have also been aided by Bern, with assistance for R&D that has enabled us to subsidise some engineers for three months rather than making them redundant.

If you could go back to before the crisis, what would you tell yourself?

I’d tell myself to warn the politicians, to tell them to do a good risk analysis, as we ourselves as a company have done every year, so that they can better prepare.

Can you describe what the new normal looks like in your business sector?

In our sector, we are bringing a little more of the digital world into marketing, production and our day-to-day work. I think that there’s also a sense that we have more of a healthy perspective on our work, we know that we won’t live forever and we need to make the most of it, while becoming more efficient as a company.

Have there been any specific innovations in your field of work over the past year?

We innovate every year, and we didn’t wait for the crisis to innovate. We bring out two or three new products each year, but nothing specifically due to the crisis, really. On the contrary, in terms of our business model, we are also seeing a trend for selling services rather than products, which is unusual for our sector.

We innovate every year, and we didn’t wait for the crisis to innovate.
Eric Schnyder
CEO, Sylvac
Was this due to customer demand or is it something you’re pushing?

It’s not due to customer demand, we are pushing and we think that in five to ten years there will be far more services in the digital world, rather than physical products.

What kind of services do you mean? Maintenance, improvement?

We sell optical measurement machines to our customers, but they do need regular maintenance to keep them running at full capacity. Previously, we sometimes offered this service but this came at a cost, with a technician on site who cleaned and calibrated the machines. Recently, we started selling this service as a subscription service, and the market is coming round to the concept. Our competitors are doing this too, by the way.

You said that the customers have progressed; they accept the change towards a digital era. Have there been other evolutions in customer behaviour?

People are more open to presentation via a video conference in terms of product placement or training on products. This also means that our technicians have more contact with the end customers. The R&D department are frequently off in their own world, and aren’t really concerned with what’s happening on the ground.

What are your quarterly, biannual and annual objectives?

We made a loss of -20% in 2020 compared to 2019, which is acceptable. For the record, we made a loss of -52% in 2008 compared to 2009. Now, we expect to see middling progress, with volumes that are more or less equivalent to those of 2019, with gradual annual growth of 2%.

You’re a family firm: is that an advantage for getting through this kind of crisis?

It is actually an advantage, I think because we’re not under pressure from shareholders. Even if we make a loss one year, or even over two years, as long as we can see a way out, we’ve got no worries.

You are also a company that provides training, which is important in your field of work. Can you describe what you do in this domain?

We do have a branch for training, for around fifteen apprentices. The apprenticeships focus on different industries, which is enriching for them. We also try to encourage further vocational training.

Has the quality of training suffered due to the crisis, have you had to adapt?

I think that it might actually have benefitted the training, as employees were more available and were also more able to follow a short half-day training session that could be held remotely.

As a family business, how do you bear responsibility towards your employees, your customers and towards society in general?

Everyone has their part to play here. I do what I can within the business, and I think everyone needs to take on their individual responsibilities. There is an element that’s a bit more difficult: always being a shining example. It’s not easy to know how others see us. I’m thinking of young people in particular, who have an approach that differs to ours.

Have you set any sustainable development objectives?

Even if they’re not Minergie-certified [Minergie is a Swiss registered quality label for new and refurbished low-energy-consumption buildings], the new buildings that we have built are energy-efficient. Our instruments themselves are attractive because they are low-consumption. Innovation can bring in eco-friendly solutions. In our business, we try to do as much as we can.

A slightly more philosophical question: is resilience innate or can you learn it?

It’s a bit of both. The experience and the knocks we receive during our lives enable us to become more resilient.

Any final words?

I think that what we’ve been through enables us to reflect on how we can better manage the situation in the next crisis. I think that it’s a good opportunity to take a look at what we’re doing and improve. We were familiar with economic crises, but this health crisis has been new ground for us. With simple preventative measures and a little hand gel, a few masks and a bit of foresight, we are ready for the next pandemic that will hit us, though we’re not sure when that will be. Plus, we have gathered more knowledge on how to reduce transmission of seasonal flu.

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