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.