David Bosshart in the GDI library in Rüschlikon.

Interview with David Bosshart

«We hope the result will be unequivocal»

The Duttweiler Foundation sees itself as the moral conscience of Migros. David Bosshart explains why he is concerned about the alcohol ballot.

Kian Ramezani

The aim of Gottlieb and Adele Duttweiler in setting up a foundation was to ensure that Migros would continue to reflect its founders’ values also in future. Until today, the G. and A. Duttweiler Foundation has been dedicated to this task. It is currently engaging with the issue as to whether the sale of alcoholic drinks is compatible with Migros’ values. The Foundation has decided to allow people to vote according to their own conscience in the forthcoming ballot. David Bosshart, President of the Foundation Board since 2020, explains why.

For a hundred years Migros has applied the ban on alcohol, which is one of its core values. Do you also see things that way?

David Bosshart: At Migros it is possible to change anything through democratic votes. The Foundation welcomes this. However, wine and beer can’t be introduced as easily as say a new type of cheese. The alcohol ban is a core value within the Migros identity, which has grown up over the decades …

and which now might be swept away in a ballot.

Before it abolishes this core value, Migros should explain what it is going to replace it with. It is all well and good to say that it is already doing a lot for society, for instance via the Culture Percentage. However, this is also a little too convenient.

Migros actually has other important values alongside the alcohol ban.

For sure, it’s not so much about alcohol per se, as rather the question of how we deal with our core values overall and how we remain credible. If some cooperatives say yes to alcohol and some say no in June, we’ll end up with a patchwork outcome, undermining our union rooted in business and ideas, our sense of solidarity, and the simplicity of what we have to offer. This goes right to the heart of Migros’ values …

… just like the autonomous status of cooperatives. Values can also contradict one another. 

Democracy was not an end in itself for Duttweiler, but rather always served the purpose of strengthening the Migros community as a whole. The Foundation would have welcomed an additional question on the ballot, asking for example whether, if a majority of six cooperatives came out in favour of alcohol, the other four should also be forced to implement the result. And the same vice versa in the event of a majority voting no. 

The Foundation Board itself has decided to allow people to vote according to their own conscience. Why?

It did so because the current solution is the best one. The cooperative bodies have placed a very clear focus on «democracy first». We respect this, although hope that the result will be unequivocal.

«Duttweiler regarded selfishness as the greatest evil.»

David Bosshart

And what would Duttweiler himself have to say?

One can speculate about that. Based on his writings, it is likely that he would still have seen everything through the lens of what would strengthen the Migros community and its ideas over the long term. Duttweiler was a great businessman, but also a major idealist with a clear, optimistic conception of humanity. He created unique structures in which both commercial and non-commercial considerations were of equal relevance. He regarded selfishness as the greatest evil. We can only overcome major challenges together. There is always only one Migros at those decisive times when values are at stake.

You always speak to the community. 

This is because the Foundation regards it as the core value of Migros. Duttweiler raised major questions, which Migros is having to engage with and answer time and again: How exactly is a cooperative different from a commercial company? What does participation mean, in both ideal as well as material terms? How can we achieve simplicity, whilst acting radically with a focus on customers and staff? People in Switzerland continue to place more exacting demands on Migros than they do on its competitors. It is good that this is the case, and we have to keep this spirit alive. It would be sad to give in to the forces of incremental change, and one day have to concede that one has become expendable.

Have people approached you over the last few months in order to talk about this ballot? 

Yes, and opinions have differed considerably. When I was recently giving a talk in Lausanne at the Hotel School, even one Asian student even asked me why Migros should start selling alcohol now. All in all, I have the feeling that the better and the longer someone has got to know Migros and its history, the more sceptical he or she will be about the introduction of alcohol; however, neither will he or she have a dogmatically negative stance. Practically everyone appreciates the increasing need for convenience when shopping.

The Migros community is inseparably linked to its democratic structures. Are they working properly?

Important ballots such as the present one actually give a good insight into the state of the business. The systems are undoubtedly good, there is plenty of energy and lots of people identify with Migros, especially amongst the membership. We could expand democracy even further in future, as anticipated by Duttweiler. However, before doing so we will have to put a lot of effort into thinking about things and convincing people. It’s great for the cooperative to have a long-term outlook. However, we should always also set ambitious and binding targets. And let us not forget that if the cooperative is weakened then democracy will also become weaker. History teaches us that democracies can sometimes vote themselves out of existence. The Migros community is strong, but we also have to nurture it.

The Duttweiler Foundation is charged with upholding the founders’ values. You have been President of the Foundation Board since 2020. Do you see yourself as a kind of keeper of the holy relics?

We have to be stricter by our nature, and must not give in to every passing fad. But at the same time we are not fundamentalists and we do battle through arguments. The Foundation is not interested in moralising, although it does have a moral task. It states its position on important issues and continuously provides input into the various Migros bodies. This is a beautiful and demanding task, which calls for a great deal of passion, robust nerves and also lots of courage.

And do people listen to you?

(smiles) We are listened to. In order for this to happen we have to speak clearly, rather than shouting loudly.

David Bosshart (63) is President of the Gottlieb and Adele Duttweiler Foundation. From 1999 until the end of 2020, he headed the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute for Economic and Social Studies (GDI) in Rüschlikon ZH, which is supported by Migros. The qualified business manager, who holds a doctorate in philosophy, is the author of numerous publications and a sought-after public speaker. He has an adult daughter and lives together with his wife in Rüschlikon.