A Swiss in Asia

Stephen Zuellig’s remarkable century

With 15’000 employees and US$15 billion in revenues, The Zuellig Group is probably the largest Swiss company you have never heard of. 

This is the story of Stephen Zuellig’s remarkable century. When he was born in 1917, there were no telephones, radios, washing machines, televisions or air travel. No one spoke of the Asian tigers; because they did not yet exist. It took 50 days to go from London to Shanghai by ship and the largest building on the famous bund was less than 60 meters high. Letters were the principal form of communication and could take up to a year for a round trip correspondence. 

Rethink everything

The world was in tatters. Lenin was living in exile on Spiegelgasse 14 in Zurich when Zuellig was born. He left a few months later when the Russian Revolution broke. World War I had just wreaked its destruction on Europe. The Zuellig family grew potatoes on its estate in Rapperswill, overlooking the Lake of Zurich, to survive the winters. 

Born abroad, raised in Switzerland, Zuellig’s wish to become a professor at the University of Zurich ended abruptly when his father instructed him to enter the family business in Asia. Little did either know that they would never see each other again. 

When the Japanese invaded Manilla, he and his brother, Gilbert, his life long partner, were stranded, and forced to live in hiding til the nuclear warheads fell on Hiroshima and the Japanese surrendered. Decimated by the war, the Zuellig Group rose like a phoenix from its ashes to engage in what would soon become Asia’s generation. Stephen Zuellig was front and center stage in this exciting arena, building a pharmaceutical distribution business that spread its tentacles across Asia, providing newly discovered, and badly needed medicine that cured or relieved many people for the first time.

Few of our lives transcend a century. ‘Rags to riches’ stories are rare, but rags to riches to rags again and finally to riches are indeed exceptional.