The big cheese: Switzerland's a larger market for us than UK
Switzerland is known as one of the most competitive economies in the world, with one of the highest rates of GDP per capita, an attractive tax regime, and a stable legal and political system.
What is less well known is that Switzerland imported more from Ireland than from the United Kingdom in 2016, with a figure of €6.4bn.
Switzerland is already Ireland's fifth-biggest bilateral trading partner. With a population barely double that of our own, Switzerland is the 11th largest market globally for sales from Enterprise Ireland-backed companies, ahead of larger markets including Canada and Australia.
Exports to Switzerland from such companies in 2016 alone were valued at €300m. In the context of Brexit, now is a good time for exporters to consider the market. Switzerland uses English widely for business, overcoming one challenge Irish exporters to Europe often face. Payment defaults and returns rates are significantly lower than elsewhere.
Its Vat rate of 8pc is much lower than other European countries, for example Germany at 19pc and France at 20pc. The generally stable exchange rate between the euro and Swiss Franc also creates favourable conditions for Irish exporters.
Switzerland shares a number of parallels with the Irish market, the most significant being innovation. It's the world's most innovative country, according to the Global Innovation Index, with almost 3pc of GDP invested in research and development.
With buyers requiring quality, reliability and flexibility, Irish SMEs can offer greater agility and customer focus than larger competitors.
Many Irish companies find customers in Switzerland more prepared to adopt innovative new solutions than those in nearby markets. With its early adopter reputation recognised across Europe, winning business with a well-regarded Swiss customer carries a lot of weight.
Switzerland is home to unique leading industry clusters, for example the life sciences cluster in the northwest region of Basel. In addition to chemical and pharmaceutical firms like Novartis, Roche, and Syngenta, it encompasses a dense network of med-tech, biotech, and nanotech companies, well-suited to the capabilities of innovative Irish companies.
Mark Ennis, business development Manager at Perigord, a leading provider of communication solutions to the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries, said: "Swiss business people are interested in Ireland and are very professional.
"Customers in Switzerland expect the highest quality and service levels and Irish companies like Perigord can exceed their standards. Swiss customers are willing to pay for a pharmaceutical service that meets regulatory requirements and a vendor that fulfils their needs."
Acquiring greater relevance is the Swiss ICT sector, with companies such as IBM and Google setting up offices, a good match for the capabilities of Irish technology companies. As a high-tech export nation, the market is in need of sophisticated high-end component suppliers.
Pam Chahal-Harris, vice-president of global marketing, Nualight, a leader in LED case lighting technology, says: "One of the main reasons Nualight entered the Swiss market was due to its adoption of energy-efficient and sustainable technologies ahead of the rest of Europe. Switzerland has always had a very progressive retail culture. Almost anything we launch which is new or likely to disrupt the market, we find Switzerland is one of the first markets to adopt it."
Irish exporters should be aware of challenges. Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but its relations are governed by bilateral agreements. EU standards are largely, but not always, adopted. But the government does not impede trade and investment; it considers liberalisation of existing laws to ensure Switzerland remains an attractive business location.
Enterprise Ireland has allocated resources and appointed a dedicated market adviser who will help companies to identify opportunities and offer guidance on challenges, including pre-visit support, in-market support, mentors, networking events, and financial assistance.
Vincenz Wagner is senior market adviser Switzerland for Enterprise Ireland
Sunday Indo Business