Asbestos brings down the ‘Swiss Bill Gates’

Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny, sentenced in absentia to 16 years on Monday by an Italian court in a landmark asbestos trial, is a self-styled philanthropist and champion of sustainable development.

His conviction for causing an environmental disaster was not only ironic but also marked a dramatic fall from grace for the man once hailed as the “Swiss Bill Gates.”

The descendant of a Swiss industrialist dynasty, Schmidheiny was a young law graduate when in 1976 he took over the reins of the family business called Eternit specialising in building materials — among them asbestos-reinforced cement.

By the mid-1980s he had diversified into other ventures, investing in forestry firm Grupo Nueva and other multinationals.

Schmidheiny was notably credited with helping revive the Swiss watch industry with a joint venture to assume control of ASUAG-SSIH, which later became Swatch Group.

His business acumen saw him elected to the board of directors of some of Switzerland‘s household names, among them the Union Bank of Switzerland (later UBS) and food giant Nestle.

In the 1990s he turned his attention to charity and to the environment, and was even appointed advisor to the secretary general of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development ahead of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

He went on to establish the Avina foundation promoting social and ecological sustainability, followed several years later by a sister foundation in Latin America.

“As a businessman, I tried to create social and economic prosperity and, at the same time, to protect and regenerate the environment,” he wrote on his website,

“As a philanthropist, my desire was to spur positive social change and safeguard opportunities, as best I could, for future generations.”

In 2009, Forbes magazine titled an article on Schmidheiny “The Bill Gates of Switzerland,” a reference to his membership of an elite club of donors, including Gates and Warren Buffet, who have given away $1 billion or more.

Last year the publication estimated Schmidheiny’s wealth at $2.9 billion.

He began retiring from his business activities in 2001 however and now lives in Costa Rica, according to Swiss news agency ATS.

Schmidheiny’s co-defendant, wealthy Belgian baron Jean-Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier de Marchienne, has kept a much lower profile throughout his 90 years.

His links with Eternit go back to 1950 when he married Viviane Emsens, a descendant of Alphonse Emsens, an industrialist and founder of Eternit Belgium, which later became Etex.

After the marriage he became a key figure in the group, heading up several of its divisions.

A rare portrait by economic magazine Trends in 1995 revealed that De Cartier de Marchienne is himself of aristocratic stock dating to the 15th century.

On his mother’s side he is linked to the publishing industry in Flanders and notably ran one of the world’s biggest producers of playing cards, Carta Mundi.

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Switzerland heavily criticised for welcoming foreign skiers

Italy has hit out at Switzerland for failing to prevent foreign skiers from hitting the slopes. Some have gone so far as to blame Switzerland for the spread of virus mutations across Europe.

Switzerland heavily criticised for welcoming foreign skiers
The mighty Matterhorn lies on the border with Italy. Photo by AFP
Italy's government last week blocked ski resorts from reopening, the day before skiing was due to be allowed for the first time this winter season due to coronavirus restrictions.
There is also a ban on non-essential travel until February 25th.

“It's a disaster. For a week now, we have been readying the slopes for the opening and preparing the health protocol,” said Denis Trabucchi, an Italian ski instructor. 

But the ban has not stopped Italian snow enthusiasts from hitting the slopes on the Swiss side of the border, as Switzerland has kept its ski infrastructure open despite the pandemic.

Many Swiss and Italian pistes lie close to each other so it is an easy commute from one resort to another.

The mayors of Italian border towns are annoyed that local skiers are ‘emigrating’ to Swiss ski slopes, according to the Provincio di Como newspaper.

“Cross-border skiers are not as numerous as cross-border workers, of course, but ski traffic has increased,” said Massimiliano Tam, mayor of Villa di Chiavenna, a town in Lombardy.

He said that despite bans on such border hopping, many Italians rent apartments on the Swiss side of the frontier so they can ski.

Roberto Galli, the mayor of Livigno, a ski resort in the Italian Alps, is also livid at the “cross-border ski mobility”.

“Customs controls are really limited” he said, calling for more rigorous checks “especially for Italian cars with ski racks and snow on the roof”.

Italian authorities even went as far as blaming Switzerland for the spread of the pandemic across Europe. 

Walter Ricciardi, the head of the Italian government's coronavirus task force, said Switzerland's decision to keep ski slopes open throughout winter, while neighbouring countries shut down theirs, allowed the British strain of coronavirus to arrive on the continent.

READ MORE: Is Switzerland to blame for Europe’s third wave of coronavirus?

A similar situation occurred in December, when French skiers tried to sneak into Switzerland to ski.

France’s authorities quickly announced that French residents heading abroad to ski would have to self-isolate for seven days on return and that border checks would be stepped up in certain areas. 

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What are the Covid-19 rules for skiing in Switzerland this winter?