Stephan Schmidheiny was born on October 29, 1947. He and his siblings, Thomas, Alexander, and Marietta, were raised by their parents Max and Adda Schmidheiny-Scherrer in Heerbrugg, Switzerland. His father and uncle, Ernst II, expanded the family business at the international level through Holderbank and Swiss Eternit.
Stephan Schmidheiny, against his father’s wishes that he study engineering in order to continue the family business, attended law school at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, where he obtained a PhD in Law in 1972.
Prior to completing his degree, he would occasionally have jobs in the family company. In 1969, at age 22, he worked at one of Swiss Eternit Group’s companies in Brazil, carrying bags of asbestos and dumping them into the mixer.
He remained connected to the Group by temporarily working as the secretary to one of the company’s a high-level executives, accompanying him on his travels to monitor their international operations. He later joined the Sales, Planning and Information Systems division in one of the companies in South Africa.
In 1974, after five years of getting to know the company’s activities in the field, Stephan formally joined Eternit AG in Niederurnen, Switzerland, as Head of Sales. A year later he was appointed General Manager and delegate to the Administrative Council of that same plant.
In 1976, his father handed over the general management of the Swiss Eternit Group (SEG), making Stephan, at 29, the head of a conglomerate with investments in more than 20 countries around the world.
Due to the nascent debate in Europe and North America on the possible health risks resulting from asbestos processing, one of the first things Schmidheiny did was implement an innovative system in all of Eternit’s plants. The objectives of the program, called “New Technology,” were to minimize the risks associated with the mineral by installing new equipment and filters to reduce the concentration of fibers in the air as much as possible, and create training programs for the employees. At the same time, he started research on producing asbestos-free products.
When it came to banning the use of asbestos in different parts of the world, Stephan Schmidheiny was ahead of his time: in 1981 he announced that the companies associated with the Swiss Eternit Group would gradually discontinue making products with the mineral. True to his word, by 1984 the asbestos in several Eternit products had been replaced by a cellulose pulp-based component.
That same year, his father decided to distribute the family inheritance. He gave the Swiss Eternit Group (SEG) to Stephan, while his brother Thomas received the Holderbank cement company (which later became Holcim).