Klaus Schwab on the world stage
Klaus Schwab has a Rolodex that is a veritable who's who of business, politics and the arts. But Schwab, who moves with ease on the world stage and is on a first-name basis with people from French President Jacques Chirac to Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, is seldom on the phone. "If there's a need, I call," Schwab said in an interview on Wednesday. "For example, I talked twice in the last 10 days with (Israeli Prime Minister Ehud) Olmert about the situation in Israel ... but otherwise I'm very careful in using my contacts."
Schwab's easygoing manner belies the authority he carries as the executive director and founder of the World Economic Forum. The gathering has changed since it was founded in 1971, growing from a small meeting of business executives eager to learn about American management techniques to the world's premiere meet-and-greet - where it's not uncommon to see rock stars talking about poverty and debt relief with high-ranking European politicians and corporate chieftains.
"Today we are confronted with so many challenges," he said. "People come together from all walks of life and look at this global agenda and try to define priorities."
As more people participate in the annual meeting, the media coverage has intensified with hundreds of reporters and journalists angling for sound bites, quick comment and searching for trends that could shape opinion through the rest of the year and beyond. "You don't measure the results in terms of communiques. What we want to achieve is that everybody who goes away better understands the world, in his own area of responsibility and is better equipped to make decision," he said.
Asked about this year's return to business as the key focus, the Swiss-born Schwab called it the result of shifting changes in world developments.
"The last two or three years have been very positive ... but there are so many frailties, so many question marks within the system like higher oil prices, higher interest rates, the American deficit and so on," Schwab explained. "So I think to look at those underlying weaknesses of the global economy is important." He also talked about the revolutionary change that has seen information become a commodity.
"I described it as going from globalization to the next stage, which is Google-ization," Schwab said, referring to Internet search titan Google Inc. and its growth.
Then there are China and India, two countries he said have risen to be world players.
"I think people in general, and also business, underestimate how much the rules are rewritten at this particular moment," he said, referring to economic data China released Wednesday that show it may have leapfrogged Britain and France to become the world's fourth-largest economy.
Schwab's own background - he has a degree in engineering and is a former economics professor - gives him an innate understanding of business, but it's his desire to proffer ideas and friendship that give him his drive.
"Klaus Schwab is a person truly dedicated to a truly noble cause - improving the state of the world," said Henry McKinnell, chairman and CEO of Pfizer Inc.
Schwab's association with the World Economic Forum's annual meeting has resulted in a long streak of recognition. He has even been told, he said, that since the meetings began in the 1970s, only three people who were around then still remain important.
"Castro, Gadhafi and Schwab," he said, laughing. "But I would have preferred different people."