Swiss toothbrush company gives workers a say
Trisa toothbrushes clean people’s teeth in 60 countries and on every continent. The Swiss company’s management attributes its success to a history of enthusiastic, innovative and entrepreneurial staff.
“A team led by my father laid the foundation for a new company philosophy,” explains Adrian Pfenniger, CEO of the 132-year-old company based in the central Swiss canton of Lucerne.
Pfenniger’s father, Ernst, said in 1964 that the entrepreneur’s task is “to do everything to ensure that the people who work for him take pleasure in their jobs. He who enjoys his work will always produce better results. To the benefit of one and all.”
However, these noble words weren’t accepted by everyone. “The zeitgeist back then meant some people reckoned they could see communist thinking behind them and called him the ‘communist from the Suhrental [the local region]’,” the younger Pfenniger says.
That was absolutely not his father’s intention, he adds. Rather, it was simple common sense: “It was his conviction that people who take part in something develop a completely different relationship to it. You’ll succeed in something if you do it with enthusiasm.”
Trisa has put those words into daily practice. “One of the most important ways to motivate people is to give them interesting jobs,” Pfenniger says. “The work climate also plays a vital role. As do personal contact within teams and the culture of open debate, where management also sets an example.”
Having a say and participating in business success also promote a feeling of belonging and being in the same boat. This is why all “Trisaners” – as staff call themselves – are considered co-employers. They all have ownership of the company’s share capital and success, and their representatives make up half the administrative board.
Members of that board are chosen democratically. In the first round of voting, anyone can put forward any name. In the second and deciding round, the four or five workers with the most votes are asked whether they want to be available as a candidate at the annual general meeting.
The board has equal representation: three family members and three staff representatives.
“The thinking here is that the workers can’t do anything without capital and vice versa,” Pfenniger says.
Opinions that differ from those of the family are not only listened to and taken seriously by the management committee but also occasionally implemented – even decisions with far-reaching consequences.
For example, in the 1980s a staff representative objected to the family’s plan to sell the original building. The board re-considered its decision and years later was very grateful it did.
“We believe that the employees think just as entrepreneurially,” says Pfenniger. And the numbers prove him right. Today Trisa sells its products – primarily for oral hygiene – in 60 countries and on every continent. Toothbrushes make up the bulk of the annual turnover, which was CHF223 million ($223 million) in 2017.
The company makes 250 million toothbrushes a year, of which 96% are exported. The largest markets, in no order, are Europe, the US, China, India and southeast Asia. Important sales territories also include the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia across the United Arab Emirates to North Africa. Trisa products are also sold in Russia, but no longer in Japan for the time being.
The products are promoted around the world with the classic Swiss image of the mountains, which aims to transmit the company’s origin and a link with cleanliness and freshness.
“That goes down well in all cultures,” Pfenniger says.
Universities and industry
“In the beginning the company was producing 5,000 toothbrushes a year – all by hand,” says the CEO. “When the bristles fell out over time, the owners would send the brushes to the factory to be repaired.”
More than a century later, Trisa still makes its products exclusively in Switzerland. Despite the strong franc and high wages, the Trisaners still get behind Switzerland as a business location. They also benefit from proximity to universities.
A current project is Robo-Check, developed with the University of Bern, which uses simulations on model teeth to measure how much plaque can be removed with a certain product and a cleaning motion.
“With new developments we can very quickly work out whether we’re dealing with an interesting innovation that we want to pursue,” Pfenniger says.
Switzerland has a very high standard when it comes to oral hygiene, not least because of the world-leading universities in this field. The universities also benefit from the cooperation with industry, Pfenniger explains.
“Both sides bring their know-how and are interested in being able to use what’s developed.”
He says the company has of course had its ups and down, with some products doing better than others, but he is convinced that good performances can be achieved only as part of a team.
“Motivated co-employers are a major asset of a successful company,” he says. “For this you need a climate of trust, of enthusiasm for the jobs. If that’s there, a lot can be achieved together.”
(Translated from German by Thomas Stephens)
Switzerland is currently the best country for family companies, according to an index by the Foundation for Family Businesses in Germany and Europe.
99% of companies in Switzerland are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Of these roughly 320,000 SMEs, almost 90% are family-run.