Bertold Suhner: The Man behind Metrohm
On the occasion of our company anniversary, I decided to take the time to dive into the life of the man to whom we owe Metrohm: Bertold Suhner. Whichever sources I consulted—books on the Appenzell region’s local history, newspaper articles, or his own words, printed in old issues of the employee magazine—all of them make one thing clear to me: Bertold Suhner was an unusual character and far from ordinary. And that’s why I’d like to share with you what I learned about the man behind Metrohm.
Who was Bertold Suhner?
Bertold Suhner is mostly known for founding Metrohm. That makes sense—after all, Metrohm is the second largest employer in the Swiss canton of Appenzell Outer Rhodes and a successful global business. It’s impossible to overstate Metrohm’s importance for the Appenzell region and for analytical chemistry. But reducing Suhner to Metrohm alone wouldn’t do him justice. His versatile interests and talents made him much more than an engineer, and his dedication to the community and the environment made him much more than the head of a company.
Suhner was born in Herisau in 1910 as the son of a successful entrepreneur. After finishing school, he left his rural home region for Zurich. Here he studied mechanical engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, which is one of the most renowned universities in Switzerland and in the world. But Suhner never lost the connection to his hometown Herisau. So, after having graduated, he returned to take up work at his father’s company. After some years, when Suhner was 33, he decided to start his own business. In 1943, Suhner and his friend Willi Studer founded Metrohm.
Suhner’s leadership style was paternalistic: He was always open to ideas and ready to lend an ear, but it was he who took the final decisions. Not everyone always agreed with him, and that includes co-founder Willi Studer. When Metrohm was about to drown in debt a few years after its foundation, Studer wanted to take out more loans to give the company a boost. Suhner disagreed: Firstly because he made it a rule for himself to never make himself dependent on banks. And secondly because he believed that the company needed to recover by itself at that point—or go under. (Now that’s what I call stoic!) This dispute caused Willi Studer to leave the company. But it also established the sustainable business philosophy that is still alive at Metrohm today.
Despite his dedication to Metrohm, Suhner always found time to pursue other interests, and he had many of them. He may have been an engineer by profession, but his heart always beat for the nature and the natural sciences. He spent a lot of time in the mountains, mountaineering and skiing—both cross-country and alpine. Suhner also taught himself to play the organ and to paint. Matching his strong bond with nature, he painted landscapes in water colors and in oil. The editor in chief of the local newspaper described the paintings as enchanting, but Suhner himself was never pleased enough with them to exhibit them. I wish I could show you one of the paintings here, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to dig up any of them.
I believe that, to Suhner himself, these activities were what defined him—much more than his academic achievements or his role at Metrohm. Even with regard to hiring new employees, he said:
«When I am faced with the task of selecting an employee, I am far more interested in his human qualities than in his technical knowledge. The hobby he pursues in his leisure hours is more important to me than what sort of education he enjoyed or what his testimonials contain. Of course specialized knowledge is essential, especially in a technical concern, but it is useless if it is not allied to human qualities.»
Suhner always had strong ties to his hometown Herisau and to the Appenzell region. After Metrohm’s breakthrough, he had the financial means to give back to his home region. Cultural, environmental, and non-profit causes could always count on his support. He even initiated a foundation for cultural purposes, the Bertold Suhner Foundation.
The Life-Long Learner
Suhner retired from the operational management of Metrohm in 1968. However, he remained active in the background for several years. When he left Metrohm for good in 1982, he was 72 years old. But he still cared too much about Metrohm to just abandon it to its fate. Together with his business partners Hans Winzeler and Lorenz Kuhn, he set up the Metrohm Foundation. All company shares were then transferred to the nonprofit foundation. The foundation serves, among others, cultural and educational purposes in the Appenzell region. By initiating the Metrohm Foundation, Suhner was able to ensure Metrohm’s independence even after his resignation, while at the same time doing good for the local community.
After having fully retired from Metrohm, Suhner discovered his passion for mineralogy. This had started out as a collection of minerals and gemstones, became a second career. Suhner’s thirst for knowledge made him take his new «hobby» so far that, at the age of 73, he obtained a Ph.D. from the University of Basel for his dissertation on the topic of infrared spectroscopy in mineralogy.
In this period of his life, Suhner became more and more convinced that humankind was causing damage to nature that was beyond repair. He tried to stop this and became active in the protection of nature. He again initiated a foundation specifically for his new cause: the Bertold Suhner Foundation for Nature, Animal, and Landscape Protection.
It’s not really surprising that Suhner pursued nature conservation with the same vigor that he had applied to all of his earlier undertakings, including Metrohm. But his unwillingness to compromise in environmental questions drove a wedge between Suhner and many of his friends and former colleagues, in particular those from political and business circles. In 1988, Suhner died from his worsening asthma at age 78. At that point, he was largely socially isolated.
Bertold Suhner never strove for financial wealth, recognition, or popularity. He always stuck to his principles, even if they were inconvenient, uncomfortable, or unpopular. You could call him a hardliner. But even though this sounds as though Suhner was fighting against the community, the contrary was the case: he was a dedicated philanthropist and environmentalist. He always tried to do what was best for society and for the environment. What set him apart from others was that he didn’t shy away when this became uncomfortable.
Suhner built Metrohm around his ideas of independence and sustainability, and I still see Metrohm as a microcosm that is ruled by his values, even though Suhner left the company a quarter century ago. Suhner’s strong values and his refusal to compromise didn’t always win him popularity prizes. But I think that it’s safe to say that, without them, Metrohm wouldn’t be where it is now.