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
By ELIZABETH OLSON
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
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
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
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
"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
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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