In 1976, Stephan Schmidheiny, at the age of 29, succeeded his father as General Director of the Swiss Eternit Group (SEG). As of that time, motivated by the then current research on the health risks the mineral could cause, he fueled changes and announced the substitution of asbestos in the manufacturing process at Eternit’s plants. He was able to achieve his goal with most of the production, making him a pioneer in the elimination of asbestos as of 1984, long before governments began taking action.

The implementation of his decision resulted in the need to invest millions of dollars in operations that would reduce the risk of handling and transporting the mineral, but it also diminished the plants’ competitiveness compared to the rest of the industry, since the other companies in that area continued to produce at lower costs because they still used asbestos. This forced the closure of some of the plants. In 1989 he sold his Eternit shares.


“I made the decision to get out of asbestos based on the potential human and environmental problems associated with the mineral. But it also seemed to me that in an age of increasing transparency – and increasing concerns about health risks – it would be impossible to develop and maintain a successful business based on asbestos. This insight caused me to begin to ponder deeply the relationships between business and society. It was a painful period, but it was invaluable preparation for my later being thrown into a position of leadership on business/society issues.”“Stephan Schmidheiny, My Vision, My Path”, January 2006

He invested millions of dollars on safety programs and to reduce the environmental impact, and insisted that his colleagues in the industry carry out similar initiatives, but they preferred profitability at the cost of the public’s health. This led him to close down plants and even go bankrupt in some countries because the lack of competition made them unsustainable and the sector continued to use and still uses asbestos in two-thirds of the world’s countries.

It is interesting, to say the least, that Stephan Schmidheiny, who entered the asbestos industry almost 40 years ago, who severed himself from the industry about 25 years ago, who promoted the elimination of this mineral during his 13 years at Eternit, is now being used as a scapegoat for said industry. Thanks to his diversified investments, his current assets have only a small connection with the capital that started the family heritage.

In order to diversify his investments, he chose long-term options in companies that required —generally major— restructuring in order to continue operating; he also acquired industries that were in crisis, such as Swiss watchmaking, which was in serious jeopardy due to the growth of Japanese watchmaking. He took on the risks and challenges associated with those alternatives with determination, and, by participating on the board of directors of large European companies—Nestlé, Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS), SMH (Swatch Group), Asea Brown Boveri (ABB), Wild-Leitz (Leica)—he contributed to the successful restructuring and mergers that exist today.

His energy and fields of action were so great that from Europe he began to invest in Latin America through the forestry organization Terranova (Masisa), and pipe manufacturer Amanco, companies that, together with Plycem, would later join the Grupo Nueva holding.

At the beginning of 2000, Schmidheiny announced his retirement from public life and business. He donated Grupo Nueva to a trust that would allow it to provide long-term sustainability to the non-profit organizations he created in the region during a career that is known for his vision and values.

Construction Industry

Swiss Eternit Group (SEG)

“At the same time, I made a radical decision: Even though I did not have the faintest idea of how this change was to be implemented, in 1981 I publicly announced that the group would cease to manufacture products containing asbestos (much earlier than the ban eventually imposed by the European Union). I clearly remember the words of one of the plant’s technical managers following my announcement: ‘Young Schmidheiny is mad! He expects to manufacture Eternit products without asbestos. It’s like trying to come up with dry water.’” “Stephan Schmidheiny, My Vision, My Path”, January 2006

Diversification: Risk Becomes Development

“… I invested almost exclusively in distressed companies in need of basic restructuring. I consider myself fortunate to have found the right people to help me in that task. These people took over the daily management of the companies, allowing me to devote myself to long-term strategies.” “Stephan Schmidheiny, My Vision, My Path”, January 2006

Diversification can be considered a very risky business strategy. When I was forced to apply it, I was perfectly aware of the risks associated with my decision. The financial investments, the restructuring of the activities, the innovation and mergers, kept me motivated. Throughout this process, the Group acquired shares in companies that functioned very diverse areas.

The Technology Industry

Asea Brown Boveri (ABB)

This Swiss company’s connection to the Schmidheiny family began when Stephan’s father and uncle—Max and Ernst II—decided to invest in what was then Brown, Boveri & Cie. (BBC).

BBC was founded by Charles Eugene Lancelot Brown and Walter Boveri in 1891 in Baden, Switzerland. The company manufactures, among other things, generators, turbines and electronic equipment for train engines. In 1981, Stephan Schmidheiny joined its Administrative Council, where he advocated for the merger with the Swiss company Asea, which made turbines for energy plants and high-speed electric train engines for passenger trains.

Both companies were comparable in the number of workers, annual sales, and net profits, and complemented each other in their areas of influence. In 1998, they agreed to merge into what is now known as Asea Brown Boveri (ABB), a multinational company which today has 150 thousand workers and operates in approximately 100 countries. The company is listed in the Zurich, Stockholm, and New York exchanges.

Stephan Schmidheiny was a member of the Administrative Council for 16 years, until his retirement in 1997.


Leica Microsystems, previously Wild-Leitz

When Max and Ernst II Schmidheiny invested in Brown, Boveri & Cie., they also invested in the Wild-Leitz Group, a German company that made optical precision tools. In 1989, Stephan Schmidheiny acquired it in its totality, transforming it into a global company. He headed its merger with Cambridge Instruments in 1990, which is how Leica Microsystems was created. Today it has factories in five countries and sales in more than 20.


The Energy Industry

Landis & GYR

In 1986, when Stephan Schmidheiny began to diversify his business portfolio, one of the first things he did was became a member of the Administrative Council of Landis & Gyr, a Swiss company that manufactures gauges for gas, electricity and water. A year later he became the company’s majority shareholder and sold his shares to Elektrowatt in 1995. In 1996, he disassociated himself from the company.


The Watchmaking Industry

Swatch Group, previously SMH

Another great challenge that Stephan Schmidheiny faced in order to diversify his business portfolio started in 1985. That year he decided to invest in what was then SMH (Swiss Corporation for Microelectronics and Watchmaking Industries Ltd.), a Swiss company dedicated to watchmaking, which acquired the name in 1983 after the merger between ASUAG and SSIH.

At that time, SMH was going through a great crisis due to the onslaught of Japanese companies that were highly successful in manufacturing low cost watches for mass consumption. Schmidheiny took a risk in funding the company, attracted by what it meant to invest in one of Switzerland’s most iconic and prestigious industries. He acquired a third of the shares and thus became a member of the Executive Committee. He actively participated in the restructuring of the company, which began operating under the name Swatch Group, which today is the leader in that sector.

Schmidheiny sold his holdings in Swatch, which contributed largely to the foundation of his new fortune, and later allowed him to fund his activities in social entrepreneurship and philanthropy in Latin America.


The Consumer Industry


In 1998, he became a member of the Administrative Council of the Swiss firm Nestlé, where he remained for 15 years, resigning in 2003.

The Financial Sector

USB, formerly Union Bank of Switzerland

One of Stephan Schmidheiny’s first steps towards diversifying his business portfolio was to join the Board of Directors of the Union Bank of Switzerland in 1978. Years later, the Union Bank of Switzerland became what is known today as the renowned investment bank UBS. Schmidheiny was on the Board for 18 years until he resigned in 1996.


Investments in Latin America

Grupo Nueva

In 1998, Schmidheiny founded Grupo Nueva, a business conglomerate in which he integrated his companies in the Latin American region. At that time, the Latin American investments were concentrated in three different industries that complemented each other, as they were all related to construction materials. They were the Terranova S.A. forestry company, Plycem, and Amanco.

As of 1982 he invested in the forestry company Terranova, which later became the Chilean company Masisa, of which he acquired the majority of shares. Plycem S.A. manufactures asbestos-free fiber cement planks. Amanco S.A. manufactures plumbing and management systems for drinking water, irrigation and water treatment. What the companies had in common was that they belonged to the construction materials sector and operated in industrial areas that were highly environmentally sensitive: water management and forestry resources.

The Grupo Nueva holdings were the heart of his donation to the irrevocable trust named VIVA Trust, where the assets are managed for the purpose of continuing his philanthropic endeavors in the Latin American region.


Investment in Forestry

Masisa and Terranova

In 1982, during a vacation in southern Chile, Stephan Schmidheiny become interested in the long-term potential of the forestry industry through continued reforestation and sustainable management of forests and was inspired to invest in it. At that time, Schmidheiny acquired the Terranova company, which owned forests and sawmills that, as of said acquisition, began to be managed under strict sustainable principles. In 2003, the investment in this industry was expanded when he acquired a majority holding in Masisa, a company that, in addition to having forests, also had industrial plants that made sheets out of fiber and wood particles (normally a sub-product of the sawmill industry).

In 2005, Masisa and Terranova merged under the registered name Masisa S.A., becoming one of the largest forestry groups in the region, with a forestry and industrial presence in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Venezuela. The wood byproducts, internationally marketed by Masisa, are produced within an ethical and responsible framework, both social and environmental, which add economic and social value to forestry production.

The company has more than 350 thousand acres of forest and today has industrial facilities in the five aforementioned countries; it markets production, together with complementary products, through more than 350 retail warehouses in practically all countries in South America, as well as Mexico, making it a model of presence and added value in the region.

Masisa S.A. is currently the largest wood plank manufacturer in Latin American and the world. Its installations surpass two million cubic meters a year, which placed it among the 100 largest companies in the region. Masisa has also been recognized by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the World Economic Forum as one of the 15 most sustainable companies in the world for taking steps to achieve profitability in three areas: social, environmental and economic.




Stephan Schmidheiny invested in Amanco, a company dedicated to manufacturing pipes, fittings, and PVC accessories, and developing and installing pipe systems for water, electricity, and gas, and for handling and treating sewage.

During the years it belonged first to Schmidheiny and then to VIVA Trust, it was a paradigm of sustainability for the construction industry, as it was cited as being a textbook case on the subject, in particular for the development of the “Sustainability Scorecard;” and a model of how a company changes the way it first measures its performance, guided by economic and financial principles, to measuring its performance by its environmental, social and financial-economic aspects. The company, which was part of Grupo Nueva, was sold to the Mexican firm, Mexichem.


Plycem Company

This company had been part of one of Amanco’s business areas. Because of its potential, Schmidheiny decided to establish it as a new, independent company that also became part of the Grupo Nueva holding.

Plycem was founded and grew from the concept of producing asbestos-free fiber-cement planks using mainly organic fiber materials and, therefore, carried out important research and developed products until it was able to stabilize a line of asbestos-free fiber cement products that were highly durable and beneficial for the construction industry.

In December of 2000, as part of this process, and in the framework of sustained principles, Nicalit – one of the companies connected to PLYCEM at the time – signed an agreement with the former workers in Nicaragua to offer them Economic and Health Benefits that included annual medical check-ups and medical assistance to those former workers who would be diagnosed with illnesses resulting from asbestos exposure; this assistance is complementary to Nicaraguan Social Security services.

Today Nicalit is a social enterprise, focusing on humanitarianism and development that support social-economic inclusion opportunities in Nicaragua to improve the living conditions of former workers, their relatives and their communities. In order to guarantee the fulfillment of this mission, a non-profit foundation was created – the Fundación Cominidades Quetzal – that independently advises and guides Nicalit, supporting it in the faithful fulfillment of the agreement and the development of creative and innovative ways to manage local development in Nicaragua.

The company was sold to the Mexican company Mexalit Industrial in 2007.