Bernard A. Siegfried

With the same name as the company founder, he is an Honorary Chairman and – through his family – witness to the  140-year history of the company. One more time, Bernard A. Siegfried looks back to the past. Unvarnished, passionate, with the highs and lows. This is an oral history of four generations of Siegfrieds.


There he sits, the last Siegfried: Honorary Chairman of the company, great-grandson of the company founder. Bernard A. Siegfried still has a small, modest office at the Zofingen headquarters. But it doesn’t seem like he spends much time here; the cactus in the office looks a bit thirsty. Today, on the first day of 2013, the 140th anniversary year in the history of the company, he sits upright in his red office chair, focused and ready to open the history book of the company one more time. He also knows that he is the last, the fourth generation. There will be no longer a Siegfried working in the company of his predecessors. Bernard ­Siegfried is the last patriarch of a company that still breathes family history out of every pore, even though it’s been a publicly-listed company for years and the holdings of the family have fallen below the 3% threshold subject to disclosure.

In the beginning there was a Siegfried, Samuel Benoni Siegfried (1848 – 1905), born the same year as the modern federal state of Switzerland. He was the son of a pastor in Zofingen and a mother from the Ringier family – the Zofingen family that later built the largest publishing company in the country today. His life led him into pharmaceuticals. He completed his ­apprenticeship and worked as an assistant pharmacist in Saxony and Bremerhaven in Germany, studied pharmaceutics in Zürich and now believed himself ready for life. Luckily, the Ringier family at this time owned a pharmacy in Zofingen and Samuel Benoni Siegfried took over the grandfather’s business. Here he began mixing substances into medications that were sold over the counter to customers. Bernard A. Siegfried has no memories, he did not know him. There are a few photos, some discoveries in books, not much more. The only sure thing is that the business of a pharmacist soon became much too small for the first Siegfried.

Siegfried becomes a corporation

Samuel Benoni Siegfried planned a small factory for chemical-pharmaceutical preparations west of the Zofingen train station. A cautious businessman, he founded the company in 1873 together with Johann Dürselen, his brother-in-law as a partner. He also maintained the ­pharmacy adjacent to the factory as a financial hedge. Initially, Siegfried & Dürselen (as the company was named) employed a dozen people and Samuel Benoni Siegfried, as the driving force, was soon focused fully on that business. His brother-in-law exited the company in 1875 and it was renamed simply, Siegfried. The pharmacy was sold and both of his sons joined the company, bringing complementary know-how to the growing business. By the turn of the century there were already five dozen employees. The older son, Kurt Siegfried (1873 –1945) studied chemistry and pharmaceutics at the Federal Polytechnic in Zürich and got his Ph.D. in Leipzig, Germany. In 1902 he joined the company as scientific and technical director. Paul Albrecht Siegfried (1880–1953), the younger son, completed his commercial apprenticeship in his father’s company, worked in London and Paris and took over the company in 1905, ­together with his brother. Shortly before that time, Siegfried AG was converted into a public company. The grandson, Bernard Siegfried remembers both men as “striking personalities;” with the second generation began also the first international business activities.

“You’ve got to decide what you want to study”

By the third generation, Siegfried AG had grown into a stately family company that employed over 600 people in the 1950s. The family held the majority share and three family members led the company. Paul Albrecht brought his son, Hans Siegfried – the father of today’s Honorary chairman – into the company to take over the commercial side of the business. His son-in-law, Charles Barrelet-Siegfried – with a Ph.D. in chemistry and married to Margrit, his daughter – took over as technical director. The third family member in this group was Bert Siegfried, the son of the older son of the company founder who took care of the pharmaceutical part of the company. This trio reviewed the incoming postal mail together every day – for that generation a privilege of the executive floor.

Bernard Siegfried still remembers precisely when he joined the company. It was in the early 1960s and he was just of age, during their Sunday ride outside of Zofingen when his father said: “If you want to work in the company, then you’ve got to decide what you want to study. You’ve got to choose, chemistry or business.”

Bernard responded very calmly that the son of the brother-in-law was already studying ­chemistry, so he would become a businessman. He attended the University in St. Gall, achieved his Ph.D. in 1963 with the topic: “Behavior of the Entrepreneur toward Taxes on Earnings,” completed a training program with Siegfried in Mexico and a further program with Merck Sharp & Dohme in the USA. By the end of the 1960s he was ready to start his career and joined the company, then a fine chemical manufacturer for the pharmaceutical industry that developed, produced and sold proprietary medications and also pesticides for Swiss agriculture, and still supplied pharmacies. But it was a company with problems. The individual family members had cleanly divided up the company activities among each other, but no one really knew where the company was profitable – or lost money. This situation left a lot to do for the incoming generation.

The long good-bye of the family company

At their vacation house by the Lake of Sempach, Hans Siegfried and his brother-in-law wanted to discuss the transition of the company to the fourth generation with the youngsters, Bert and Bernard. By the end of the outdoor meeting it was clear: no one except Bernard wanted to join the company. So he started cultivating the field at Siegfried that looked most desolate: planning and organization of the company. “Using a method I had learned at Merck in the USA, I saw structural and leadership deficits,” explains Bernard Siegfried. “Things got pretty spontaneous in an American way and lots of things were changed.” This didn’t go down well with everyone on the executive floor. Many shook their heads at the new style of business and his father’s brother-in-law Charles Barrelet-Siegfried – still the Technical & Chemical Director – resisted the changes. The father, as member and Chairman of the Board of Directors, stood behind his son, who now drove the sales of over-the-counter products (under the Sidroga brand). Feeling increasingly isolated in the new activities, Charles Barrelet-Siegfried finally left the company.

Things soon got dramatic in Zofingen. The company slipped into the red for the first time in its history and stockholders had to go without a dividend. Where the pharmacists among the shareholders were used to getting together after the annual General Meeting to toast the results of the business year – this time there was nothing to celebrate. Instead, 200 jobs were slowly eliminated. “We simply had too much capital tied up in a complicated administration and an inventory that was too large,” said Bernard Siegfried. Around this time the long good-bye to the family company began. Siegfried shares were publicly listed in 1973 and slowly the influence of the family evaporated. By 1977, as Bernard moved into the Board of Directors and his father Hans was Chairman, two family members still stood at the head of the ­company. As his father retired in the beginning of the 1980s, Bernard was the last Siegfried and determined to take the final step. “I wanted to leave the phase of the family company behind,” says Bernard Siegfried today. “That’s why I put together a strong Board of Directors.” As it turned out, John F. Strasser, who made his reputation as the tough turnaround manager of Franke AG, was now at the helm of the Board of Directors. Ernst Thomke, renowned as the savior of the Swiss watch industry, was also there, along with Bruno Hunziker, Senator from Canton Aargau who was once in the running for the office of Swiss Federal Councilor.

The coup of the Board members

It was now a cold wind that blew through the company. John F. Strasser hired consultants from McKinsey who stated flatly: chemical production, a mass-production business with a high level of investment has no future. Pharmaceutical products, in particular, generics were the answer and should be expanded. This was an outrageous idea to Bernard Siegfried. ­Although the chemical business was not running well at this time, it was the largest department – and personified the company. “I did not carry out this mandate,” explains the Honorary Chairman dryly today. “The analysis of the consultants wholly ignored the importance of our company culture. Chemicals are industry, generics are marketing, which was not a core competency of Siegfried at that time.” Further conflicts between the Board of Directors and the CEO ­followed. Once it was Bernard Siegfried, considering the risks of pharmaceutical R&D – a newly developed cholesterol inhibitor had led to fatalities – and wanting to get out of that activity, against the will of the Board. Another time it was retail activities that the Board wanted to close down, which the CEO, at most, wanted to sell.

Mistrust between the Board of Directors and the CEO, the last with the name of the company, grew. This explosive situation finally detonated during an extraordinary meeting off-site, at the Hotel Egerkingen in Canton Solothurn. There, the Chairman of the Board accused the CEO of being too tentative and a weak leader, and it was time for him to leave the company. This must have been a curious situation, but even more astounding was the reaction of the accused. He made no mention of the fact that he was a Siegfried, that his predecessors had founded this company or that the family still owned a significant portion of the company shares. Not a word about any of this. Instead, he responded that was the best idea he had heard in a long time, pulled out his agenda, drew a sketch of the sun under the day, August 31, 1990 and thought: “Now, at 56 years of age I am rid of this burden and free. Free!”

Directed by a higher authority

There was admittedly another power that was influencing his life at the time. Bernard ­Siegfried remembers today: “Shortly before I was thrown out of my own company I had given my life to Jesus Christ. Up until then I had been a Christian only in name, now I ­believed.” Things started to happen that he saw as guideposts for what he had to do. In a dream he saw that the company was burning but realized upon closer inspection, that it was only a locomotive in front that was in flames. Symbolically, this meant company leadership was going up in flames, not the company itself. An investor from Japan called, wanting to invest in the company only if he, Bernard Siegfried would remain in the company. Gordon Fox, a Canadian entrepreneur who knew Bernard Siegfried well and owned about a fifth of the company, said: “I feel a tension between you and your Chairman. If you need me, just call.” Even the branch of the Siegfried family he had fought with previously, assured him of their support. Today, Bernhard Siegfried recalls, “These signs told me that a higher authority had taken over the direction of events.”

The General Meeting on the last Friday of April 1991 in Zofingen was the site of an extraordinary spectacle: on one side the Board of Directors demanding the dismissal of the CEO and the election of a new hand-picked Board of Directors – otherwise threatening resignation in corpore, and on the other side the previously dismissed CEO, confident of his supporters.  “It was really a kangaroo court,” he says today, where he had to endure accusations of ­unsatisfactory performance and poor leadership from the Board of Directors. He responded with only one comment to the shareholders: “If you want Siegfried to be managed in such gruff style in the future, vote for the Board of Directors.” The shareholders did not and soon, Strasser, Thomke and Hunziker left the General Meeting and were never seen in Zofingen again.

“More than a shining star”

For a second time, Bernard Siegfried assembled a new Board of Directors for Siegfried. A dozen years later, at his resignation in 2003 during the 130th anniversary of the company and at the 100th General Meeting, the company was more profitable than ever in its history. 
The Zofinger Tagblatt, a local newspaper headlined the event with: “Siegfried – More Than a Shining Star!” and meant the company as well as the man going into retirement.

What remains of his record of achievements? Bernard Siegfried observes the cactus in 
his office and answers: “Afterwards we spun off everything that didn’t fit – agrochemicals, retail pharmacy sales, later even the Sidroga teas – to bring the company back to its core competencies in chemical and pharmaceutical technology for our customers. And I made the company independent of the family.” Then Bernard Siegfried articulates what is surely his deepest conviction: “This is how I made the company truly independent. I would have never made it without my faith.”