On April 1 in 1943, Bertold Suhner founded Metrohm AG in Herisau, Switzerland. Besides being our founder, he was a scientist, a sportsman, a painter, a pilot, and a philanthropist. We owe him a great company, and we are proud to serve the world with our legendary Swiss made instruments and application know-how – then and now.
Who was Bertold Suhner?
Bertold Suhner is mostly known for founding Metrohm. That makes sense—after all, Metrohm is the second largest employer in the Swiss canton of Appenzell Outer Rhodes and a successful global business. It’s impossible to overstate Metrohm’s importance for the Appenzell region and for analytical chemistry. However, reducing Suhner to Metrohm alone wouldn’t do him justice. His versatile interests and talents made him much more than an engineer, and his dedication to the community and the environment made him much more than the head of a company.
Suhner was born in Herisau in 1910 as the son of a successful entrepreneur. After finishing school, he left his rural home region for Zurich. Here he studied mechanical engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, which is one of the most renowned universities in Switzerland and in the world. But Suhner never lost the connection to his hometown Herisau. So, after having graduated, he returned to take up work at his father’s company. After some years, when Suhner was 33, he decided to start his own business. In 1943, Suhner and his friend Willi Studer founded Metrohm. Together with their team, they planned to manufacture measuring devices for high-frequency engineering and telecommunications.
A stoic leader
Suhner’s leadership style was paternalistic: though always open to ideas and ready to lend an ear, it was still he who made the final decisions. Not everyone always agreed with Suhner, including his co-founder Willi Studer. The two friends did not choose an easy moment in history to found their company; World War II was raging, and both money and materials were scarce. But the employees supported the company, and were eager to join forces and create something meaningful. Perhaps it was this test of stamina during the initial difficult years which laid the foundation for the later success of the company.
When the company debts exceeded the share capital by multiple times in 1947, Suhner decided to take steps to rationalize the company. Despite the difficult situation, he refused to take out further loans; the company would have to sink or swim on its own merits. As a matter of principle, Suhner refused to be dependent on banks. This dispute caused Willi Studer to leave the company after just four years, but it also established the sustainable business philosophy that is still alive at Metrohm today.
Belief turns into success
Bertold Suhner, however, continued to believe that the company had a chance of succeeding. He took over the management of the company on his own, and shaped it according to his own vision. From the start, the company focused on organic growth rather than quick profits. Business strategies were never aligned to peak periods; instead, the company endeavored to grow slowly but surely. «My aim was always to keep the size of the company manageable, and create a solid base rather than just growing regardless of cost,» Suhner said. Over the course of its nearly 80-year history, this strategy is what has helped Metrohm to survive three recession periods.
Suhner responded to the trust demonstrated by his workforce by holding them in exceptionally high esteem: right from the start, he regarded them as more than mere employees. In 1968, when the company celebrated its 25th anniversary, Suhner wrote a text which summarized how he viewed his team:
The Metrohm Foundation
Suhner retired from the operational management of Metrohm in 1968. However, he remained active in the background for several years. At the age of 72, Bertold Suhner stepped down from his position as CEO of Metrohm. However, he wanted to ensure that the company continued to exist in line with his vision; Metrohm was to remain an Appenzell-based company, and never lose its innovative spirit by merging or being sold off to a large corporation. As Suhner had no children, he needed to find another way to safeguard the future of the company.
When he retired completely from Metrohm in 1982, he founded the «Metrohm Foundation» together with his business partners Hans Winzeler and Lorenz Kuhn. All company shares were then transferred to the nonprofit foundation. By initiating the Metrohm Foundation, Suhner was able to ensure Metrohm’s independence even after his resignation, while at the same time doing good for the local community. No longer dependent on profit-hungry shareholders and the pressure they exert, this enabled Metrohm to focus on its values and high quality standards – particularly with regard to the way in which people are treated.
When the nonprofit Metrohm Foundation was created, supporting cultural and community projects became a fixture in the company: as sole shareholder of the Metrohm Group, the Metrohm Foundation is able to invest dividends in community projects. The choice of projects supported by the Foundation reflects the strong roots of the company in Eastern Switzerland. Today, the Foundation is one of the most important funding institutions for educational, cultural, and community projects. Amongst other things, it funds a chair for «New Materials» at Zurich University for Applied Sciences, and also supports the Association of Swiss Science Olympiads.
A Jack of All Trades
Despite his dedication to Metrohm, Suhner always found time to pursue other interests, and he had many of them. He may have been an engineer by profession, but his heart always beat for nature and the natural sciences. He spent a lot of time in the mountains, mountaineering and skiing—both cross-country and alpine. Suhner also taught himself to play the organ and to paint. Matching his strong bond with nature, he painted landscapes in watercolors and in oil.
Perhaps it was these activities that ultimately defined him—much more than his academic achievements or his role at Metrohm. Even with regard to hiring new employees, he said:
After stepping down as the CEO of Metrohm, Suhner discovered his passion for mineralogy. This had started out as a collection of minerals and gemstones, but ultimately became his second career. Suhner’s thirst for knowledge made him take his new «hobby» so far that, at the age of 73, he obtained a Ph.D. from the University of Basel for his dissertation on the topic of infrared spectroscopy in mineralogy.
The philanthropist and environmentalist
Suhner always had strong ties to his hometown, Herisau, and to the Appenzell region at large. After Metrohm’s breakthrough, he had the financial means to give back to his home region. Cultural, environmental, and nonprofit causes could always count on his support. He even initiated a foundation for cultural purposes, the Bertold Suhner Foundation.
In this period of his life, Suhner became more and more convinced that humankind was causing damage to nature that was beyond repair. He tried to stop this and became active in the protection of nature. He again initiated a foundation specifically for his new cause: the Bertold Suhner Foundation for Nature, Animal, and Landscape Protection.
The Bertold Suhner Foundation for Nature, Animal, and Landscape Protection
It’s not really surprising that Suhner pursued nature conservation with the same vigor that he had applied to all of his earlier undertakings, including Metrohm. But his unwillingness to compromise in environmental questions drove a wedge between Suhner and many of his friends and former colleagues, in particular those from political and business circles. In 1988, Suhner died from his worsening asthma at age 78. At that point, he was largely socially isolated.
Bertold Suhner: the person
Suhner never strove for financial wealth, recognition, or popularity. He always stuck to his principles, even if they were inconvenient, uncomfortable, or unpopular. You could call him a hardliner. But even though this sounds as though Suhner was fighting against the community, the contrary was the case: he was a dedicated philanthropist and environmentalist. He always tried to do what was best for society and for the environment.
What set him apart from others was that he didn’t shy away when this became uncomfortable.
Bertold Suhner built Metrohm around his ideas of independence and sustainability, and despite his departure from the company nearly 30 years ago, I still see Metrohm as a microcosm that is ruled by his values. Suhner’s strong values and his refusal to compromise didn’t always win him popularity prizes. But it’s probably safe to say that, without them, Metrohm wouldn’t be where it is now, as one of the world’s most trusted manufacturers of high-precision instruments for chemical analysis.