Elevating Family Business To New Heights: Alfred Schindler

The Schindler Elevator Company moves more than 700 million people per day. Alfred Schindler has run and majority owned the fiercely independent Swiss elevator and escalator company for more than 20 years. The company was founded in 1874 in Lucerne, Switzerland, by Robert Schindler, who later sold it to a nephew—Alfred Schindler’s grandfather. Today, Schindler Group is the largest supplier of escalators and the second-largest manufacturer of elevators worldwide, with 43,000 employees and operations on five continents. Though tempted by investment banking after graduating from Wharton, Schindler returned to the family firm. He set about redesigning the company. At Wharton he learned that many top companies—in any given industry—don’t survive long-term.

Then there was the fate of American rival  and long-time family firm Otis Elevator, which was consumed by conglomerate United Technologies. Schindler decided that his family’s firm needed to become an acquirer—or it would find itself acquired. He created a five-member acquisition team and began divesting 15 non-core businesses, such as those that built bank safes, cranes, and machine tools, then set about buying smaller competitors worldwide. In 1980 the executive committee engineered the first-ever industrial joint venture in China. In 1989, Schindler acquired Westinghouse’s entire North American elevator and escalator business.

Acquisitions throughout the 1990s in Russia, Hungary, and Turkey further strengthened the company’s market domination. Though his company is listed on the Swiss stock exchange, Schindler’s aversion to becoming a takeover target has limited his ability to quickly raise capital. “We do not move like a large U.S. or UK company,” he told the South China Morning Post. “We have less access to capital and cannot take big steps one after the other.”

He sees no reason to change the course of history by lessening his family’s control of the company. “We have tried to keep it in the family and so far it has worked.” When Schindler started at the company, the market cap was CHF 220 million; as of February 2007, it was CHF 10.5 billion. Schindler is a member of Wharton’s Executive Board for Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

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