Building an International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation

The Beginning

In January 1971, the first European Management Symposium was launched.

1971

The first European Management Symposium was held in Davos, Switzerland, from 24 January to 7 February 1971. Some 450 participants from 31 countries – chief executives and senior managers from among the top companies in Europe – gathered in the Alpine enclave. The 50 faculty members included professors from the foremost business schools in the United States, as well as other thought leaders on management techniques and corporate strategy. The first week’s focus was on “The Challenge of the Future”, while the second featured discussion and debate on “Corporate Strategy and Structure.”

Convening the meeting was the European Management Forum, which would be officially established as a foundation under the supervision of the Swiss Confederation on 8 February, with its nominal headquarters in Chur, the capital of the canton of Graubünden (Grisons), and an initial endowment of 25,000 Swiss francs.

The Forum’s founder was Klaus Schwab, a Germanborn engineer, economist and professor with double doctorates, a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard and business experience in Germany and Switzerland. At the request of his former employer, the German Engineering Federation (Verband Deutscher Maschinen - und Anlagenbau, or VDMA), Schwab had written a book, Moderne Unternehmensführung im Maschinenbau (Modern Enterprise Management in Mechanical Engineering).

In it, Schwab proposed that the management of a company should serve all its stakeholders – die Interessenten – acting as a trustee charged with achieving long-term sustained growth and prosperity for the enterprise. The stakeholders included the corporation’s owners and shareholders, as well as its customers, suppliers, collaborators of any kind, government and the communities in which it operates or which may be affected by its activities. This stakeholder concept became the Forum’s guiding principle.

In 1970, Schwab left the Swiss industrial group, Escher Wyss, where he had served in top management, and set up a three-person office in Geneva to pursue his vision of creating a platform to allow European CEOs to exchange ideas, concerns and knowledge with counterparts in government and leaders from academia, media and civil society. Schwab’s first collaborator in this project was Hilde Stoll, whom he married in 1971 and who has remained her husband’s trusted partner – his “social conscience”, as he puts it – ever since.

Davos, the setting of Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), was a place of recreation and relaxation, where people took in clean mountain air to restore their health and recharge their minds. Schwab wanted participants in the European Management Symposium to feel relaxed enough to speak frankly, while maintaining camaraderie of purpose and mutual respect. This became known as the “Davos Spirit”, still the hallmark of all Forum gatherings.

Nobody, not even Klaus Schwab, after this first symposium could be aware of the powerful platform that had been created.