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Werner Dubach Takes Datacolor Off the Swiss Stock Exchange

Werner Dubach
The Argument Against Age Limits Is He Himself
Former Eichhof Boss Werner Dubach Takes Datacolor Off the Stock Exchange and Still Has Big Plans for his Colorimetry Company

By Dieter Bachmann | April 23, 2024

On Werner Dubach’s first day at work at the Eichhof brewery in the early 1970s, all he had on his desk was a yellow plastic ring binder: the rules of the Swiss beer cartel. “That was a rude awakening,” he recalls. He had been summoned back to Lucerne by his father, a lawyer who was the Chairman and Delegate of the Board of Directors of Eichhof. The young chemical engineer had actually completed an MBA in the USA because he was interested in strategic issues (“I never wanted to be in the lab”). And now he was at this somewhat outdated brewery, whose business policy was dictated down to the last detail by the cartel.

Despite this unpromising start, joining Eichhof was to be the prelude to a remarkable career for Dubach as a manager, investor and entrepreneur. Another chapter closed last week with the delisting of the colorimetry company Datacolor – once part of the Eichhof Group – from the Swiss stock exchange. But the 80-year-old from Lucerne is far from thinking about quitting. “Without challenges, things go downhill very quickly.”

Foray into new business areas

Dubach was never short of challenges. As technical manager of Eichhof, he modernized the brewing equipment. He later became interested in internationalization, but soon realized that there was no market for Swiss beer abroad. This and the limited opportunities for growth at home were among the reasons why Eichhof initially diversified into commercial kitchens and laboratory equipment.

In 1980, Eichhof acquired Datacolor, a company that manufactures instruments and software for color measurement, formulation and calibration. The company, which is based in the canton of Zug and today employs over 400 people and operates mainly from the USA, benefited from the emergence and increasing computing power of personal computers. “We grew with the PC,” says Dubach.

The measuring devices required increasingly complex software. This made it easier to calculate, transmit and save analysis results. Calibration systems for color screens also became part of the business. Today, handy measuring instruments that can be connected to a smartphone are also available.

Guaranteeing the right color

Colorimetry ensures that a fabric has exactly the right color in the textile sector, for example. A shirt that leaves the factory in Asia must look exactly as the American fashion chain ordered it – and as the designer in Europe first created it.

Even though he was fascinated by all the technical aspects of Datacolor right from the start, Dubach, now CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Eichhof Group, also had to deal with completely different issues. Because the brewery’s founding families had left early on, the company, which had been listed on the Swiss stock exchange since 1927, lacked an anchor shareholder. Like other beer producers, Eichhof owned a significant amount of real estate. This constellation repeatedly led to speculation about a split-up of the company.

Dubach once inherited a 5 percent stake from his parents, which they had built up over the years. He himself “bought Eichhof shares with every franc he earned.” Later, together with his wife Anne Keller Dubach, the President of the Zürcher Kunstgellschaft who died in 2021, he was able to further increase the stake. He concluded a shareholders’ agreement with her and commodities trader Marc Rich. Together, the three of them had a large enough stake to be armed against a hostile takeover.

Heineken gets involved after all

Various attempts by Dubach to merge Eichhof with a domestic competitor as a counterweight to the foreign giants Carlsberg and Heineken failed. “It is possible that an Eichhof merged with a Swiss brewery could have played a role for longer,” he says, “but perhaps that is also an illusion.”

Dubach held on to independence for a long time, but in 2008 Heineken made an offer that the Eichhof Board of Directors could not refuse. The Lucerne brewery went to the Dutch company, the Civil Service Insurance Fund of the Canton of Zurich acquired the real estate – leaving only Datacolor in Eichhof’s listed shell. With a turnover of 90 million dollars in the last financial year, the company is so small that a stock market listing is not worthwhile. This is another reason why Werner Dubach has steadily increased his stake in Datacolor and launched a takeover bid for the few remaining publicly held shares in the fall of 2023.

Of course, as the sole owner, he now has more freedom. And he will. Dubach still has big plans for his “baby”, as he calls Datacolor. Although the company is the international leader in textiles with a market share of over 80 percent, it has not yet managed to gain a foothold in the important printing and packaging sector. The paint and coatings industry also still offers a lot of potential. Interesting companies often have exorbitant price expectations and at the same time are afraid to have their books looked at.

Acquisitions entail amortization of goodwill and intangible assets, which puts pressure on net profit – this is also easier to do as a private company than when you have to explain it to public shareholders.

Manager without “showtime”

Dubach exudes a likable mixture of ease and drive. When he talks about Datacolor, he always says “we”. We want to. We have to. He emphasizes the family atmosphere with the CEO and within the management team: “We don’t have the ‘showtime’ of certain managers.”

He does not understand why many companies do without the experience of older specialists. “An age limit of 65 for top managers and 70 for board members is nonsense,” he says. “Although people are living longer and longer, these term limits are stubbornly adhered to or people over a certain age are no longer asked for management positions.”

At least at Datacolor, Dubach wants to continue to shape the strategy for a while as President. “And I ask the so-called stupid questions.” Although he could theoretically “sell the company tomorrow”, this is not an issue. Also, because his two daughters from his first marriage are interested in the company and will soon be joining the Board of Directors. They will find a more open company culture that the young Werner Dubach once had at Eichhof.

This article was originally published in Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

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