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November 28, 2000

Article in New York Times


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The Board of Governors of the International School of Geneva decided without consultation to move all students in classes 10 through 13 from La Grande Boissiere and La Chataigneraie to a new campus to be constructed in Grand Saccconex, near the airport.

Article in New York Times

Strangers in a Strange Workplace


November 30, 2000


GENEVA, Nov. 29 When Procter & Gamble decided to transfer 1,000 employees here, it was the biggest such move for Geneva, which has been campaigning hard to attract companies. Many tales of hardship later, the continuing relocation has pointed up some unforeseen pitfalls of such corporate moves.

In the throes of a global restructuring three years ago, P.& G. began searching for a city for a regional headquarters. Geneva won over other Swiss cities as well as Dublin because of its location, international airport and "the right quality of life" a low crime rate and the promised availability of housing and international schools, said Terrence T. Moore, who has been overseeing the relocation.

Geneva was already a known quantity to P.& G., maker of products like Tide and Pampers, which had opened an office here in 1953. In the years since, the number of employees had varied as the company changed strategies, but at most there were fewer than 500.

Suddenly, P.& G., based in Cincinnati, was going to place more than 2,000 people in a small city. "That's a big piece to swallow for any city," Mr. Moore acknowledged. P.& G. hired Price Waterhouse Coopers to identify possible knots involved in transferring the mostly executive- level employees from Britain, Germany and elsewhere in Europe to an area with only 400,000 residents.

Geneva, which has been seeking international companies since its economy went into a recession in the early 1990's, was happy to oblige. It offered P.& G. a generous package, including taxation on only 20 percent of corporate profits and double the standard reduction up to 30 percent on employee tax obligations. To minimize the move's impact, P.& G. mapped out a phased entry, transferring employees over 18 months. About 80 to 100 people were moved, having each made up to two previous visits to choose housing and schools.

But by the middle of last year, difficulties arose.

Introducing families, most of whom had never expected to move, into a new city, a new culture and a new language French proved to be a ticklish task. "I arrived here on June 6, we started the move on June 7, and by June 8, we realized we had a big problem," Mr. Moore said in an interview at P.& G.'s newly renovated offices. The major stumbling block was the shortage of housing, and the peculiar nature of the housing that did exist. Hemmed in by mountains, Geneva's land is at a premium. Despite statistics showing that as many as 1,500 rental properties come on the market each month, many needed renovation or were simply too expensive even for well-paid executives.

Most families were used to living in houses and did not want apartments, so that eliminated a good chunk of available properties. Larger families found that most houses in Geneva tended to be small, especially for large families. And Geneva landlords moved quickly to raise prices even higher to cash in on P.& G.'s subsidized rentals.

"We found the prices up over the moon," said Ingrid Hoffmann, who joined her husband in Geneva a year after he moved from Frankfurt. Their house is smaller than their previous home, but she is glad they bought it. After a year, some P.& G. families are still looking to rent, or even buy, a large house.

"Big houses are a problem we can't solve at all," acknowledged Robert Kuster, who heads Geneva's Economic Development Office. Tales of families being crowded into cramped apartments, steep prices and overcrowded schools began to trickle out of Geneva. Resentment built up locally because people believed P.& G. had gobbled up the good properties, skewing the market. P.& G. points out that it is only one of more than 200 businesses that Geneva has managed to attract in recent years though it is by far the largest.

P.& G. insists that two-thirds of families found housing on their first visit to Geneva, and Mrs. Hoffmann, who had previously moved with her husband to Italy and England, called it the easiest transfer she had had.

Her 16-year-old son was able to find a spot in the city's German school, but local resentment flared again when many of the 300 children of P.& G. families flooded into the city's international schools, which were unprepared for them. Two new primary schools were opened, but to the dismay of parents paying tuition of $15,000 a year, some children will be schooled in makeshift structures until another campus can be built.

P.& G., which insists that it never asked for priority for employees' children, gave the International School of Geneva $2 million. The money has yet to be spent because the school system is in a bitter dispute over how best to accommodate the increased number of students.

Housing and schooling aside, there is an emotional factor in such relocations, Mr. Moore acknowledged. "Most of these families never expected to be transferred," he said.

The language obstacle and the inability of spouses to work, which is permitted only if the spouse can find a sponsoring company, has left many families feeling irked and unsettled. "It was a good idea on paper, but this move overwhelmed the infrastructure here," said one disgruntled wife, who insisted on not being identified because she feared her husband could be dismissed. "If anyone had bothered to really look, they could have predicted the problems."

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