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Corporate Counsel Q&A: Switzerland

Mathias Neuenschwander, corporate tax manager for Syngenta International, discusses a range of matters, including his role within the global agribusiness company, the Swiss tax regime, the biotechnology and agribusiness field, and important attributes of a leading corporate tax practitioner.

Syngenta AG is a global Swiss agribusiness that markets seeds and agrochemicals. Formed in 2000 by the merger of Novartis Agribusiness and Zeneca Agrochemicals, the company is heavily involved in biotechnology and genomic research and focuses on the development, marketing and sale of various pesticides and seeds worldwide. Syngenta employs over 28,000 people in 90 countries, all working towards the stated aim of bringing greater food security, in an environmentally stable way, to an increasingly populous world by enhancing farm productivity.

Syngenta places particular emphasis on innovation in research and development, striving to use the technology at its disposal in crop protection, seeds and seed care to provide growers across numerous established and emerging markets with long-term solutions to the challenges of modern crop growth.

Mathias Neuenschwander is the corporate tax manager for Syngenta in Switzerland and brings a wealth of experience to the role, having previously worked as a tax senior consultant at EY for more than five years. Who’s Who Legal spoke with Neuenschwander about his role within Syngenta, the company’s prospects for the future, the current state of the Swiss tax sector and the skills required to excel as a private practitioner in the industry.

WWL:Tell us about your role as Swiss Corporate Tax Manager at Syngenta.

I am responsible for the direct (corporate) tax compliance of all Swiss entities, M&A activities in Switzerland and, as Syngenta operates globally, I am also involved in all direct tax matters in which Switzerland and affiliate entities abroad have international tax intersections.   

WWL: Switzerland has implemented numerous reforms of its tax system in recent years, to strengthen its competitiveness as an international location for corporations. The most notable of these changes is Corporate Tax Reform III, which makes substantial changes to the existing system. How will these reforms affect the company and what steps have been taken to prepare for the new regime?

The reform has huge consequences for the company, and for other Swiss-based multinationals of course. The most important multinationals in Switzerland are members of Swissholdings, a federation of industrial and service groups in Switzerland, as well as other important discussion forums in Switzerland. These federations and associations (communities of interest) also represent the multinationals’ tax “interest” before the government and the tax authorities. It is difficult to predict the outcome of the reform, however, and discussions between tax payers (via Swissholdings) and the Swiss federal government are ongoing.

WWL: What criteria do you use when deciding which firms or lawyers to instruct in relation to a Swiss tax issue?

Contact with the local tax authorities is very important (in Switzerland we have 26 cantonal tax authorities), as is business knowledge of our industry and the company, technical know ledge, and interpersonal skills or charisma.

WWL: Syngenta is a leading Swiss and international agribusiness company. Given the company’s impressive growth, what steps have been taken to develop its own in-house legal function?

The worldwide legal regulatory environment is huge and becomes more and more complex year by year. Different teams and functions including the finance team, treasury, and legal, are involved to solve certain compliance issues. Compliance has become more and more important, and tax authorities worldwide are now much more “aggressive” when it comes to taxable profit allocation.

WWL: What is the greatest challenge – legal, practical or political – facing the international biotechnology and agribusiness field?

I would say a mix of all three, depending on the countries you are involved with. A big challenge is climate change (2014 was a difficult year for agriculture on a global basis). Therefore, in particular regarding crop protection, there is further potential to manage climate change as weather changes become more violent and unpredictable (eg, heavy rain instead of a normal seasonal rain shower).

As we all know worldwide food demand is increasing. Therefore another big challenge is the question of how we distribute our worldwide wheat and corn inventories to those people who lack food.

Otherwise, in my working area, legal and tax, there is and has always been a dynamic cycle. With the Corporate Tax Reform III in Switzerland alongside developments in the EU and globally, we are faced everywhere with new regulations and new practices – we have to be up to speed quickly with such challenges. 

WWL: What makes a leading corporate tax lawyer?

Good tax lawyers have to fulfil a lot of varying criteria. They must demonstrate that they have an ability to keep up with constantly changing tax law; commitment and perseverance; exceptional communication skills; analytical skills; and another important factor is that they have dealt with the specific tax issue at hand in the past.

WWL: How do you see Syngenta developing in the next five years? Are there any technological advances which might have an effect on the way the sector operates?

This is obviously difficult to predict and depends on worldwide environmental developments (political and economic). I personally believe the company will grow. We try to improve our products on an ongoing basis so that farmers get an optimal harvest. To be honest I am not aware of any specific brand new technology developed by the R&D; this is a difficult question and it is not always possible to disclose such information for reasons of confidentiality.

WWL: What prompted your move to Syngenta, and what do you enjoy most about working as a corporate tax manager at Syngenta? How does working in such a specific industry differ from working at a major professional services firm?

The work environment is different. My role at the company is more independent in comparison to a (big) consulting firm. Further you are more focused on specific topics, tax issues, which arise within the group. Otherwise, a consultant usually does not implement compliance procedures for a newly acquired entity, and as an in-house consultant you are directly involved in implementing those elements, which makes for very interesting work. The knowledge and focus of consulting firms – speaking from experience and my perspective – is wider. However, after six years with EY I was curious about in-house work and the prospect of a new challenge,  which is why I moved to Syngenta; this was a good decision!

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