Page last updated at 07:46 GMT, Monday, 1 February 2010

Davos 2010: No glitz, no politics, but down to business

Swiss alphorn group in traditional costumes
It's Davos, but not as we know it

By Tim Weber
Business editor, BBC News website, in Davos

This year's World Economic Forum may not have been quite the event the organisers had hoped for.

If you count success in the number of top politicians you can attract, then Davos 2010 was something of a failure.

Davos 2010 - and the year 2010 - is about risk; Davos 2011 and the year 2011 will be about reward
Martin Halusa, chief executive, Apax Partners

Yes, French President Nicolas Sarkozy opened the five-day jamboree. The presidents of South Africa, Mexico and South Korea came to advertise their countries - ahead of the Football World Cup, to attract investment and in the run-up to taking over the G20 leadership respectively.

But overall there was a distinct lack of heavy-hitters, and a late cancellation from German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle left an embarrassing gap in the Saturday schedule - a slot once taken by star turns such as Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Down to business

Not that anybody really missed Mr Westerwelle and his ilk. "Davos has not many politicians this year, and the better for it," one forum old-timer told me, and his comment was echoed by other executives.

And so Davos got down to business.

This is not a complete list, but in my view four themes dominated this year's discussions.

  • Banking reform - with bankers and regulators probing and prodding each other in the search for a solution that - in the words of Standard Chartered bank boss Peter Sands - strikes the right balance between safety and risk: "If we go wrong one way, we'll have another crisis; if we go wrong the other way, we take the steam out of the recovery." Bankers were well beaten up by the Davos crowd (just as hedge funds, private equity and sovereign wealth funds were given a hard time in previous years). It made Deutsche Bank boss Josef Ackermann plead with the audience to "stop the blame game, let's get on with the job". The debate also drowned out other big issues such as global food shortages. "I know it's more fun to talk about the banking sector," said a wistful Patricia Woertz, chief executive of agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland.
  • Economic recovery - which most agreed would see Europe in the doldrums, the United States facing a slow recovery, and a shift in the economic balance towards countries such as Brazil, China and India.
  • Technology - and how it is changing societies, government, companies and human behaviour.
  • Humanitarian aid - a great opportunity for companies to show their smiley face, but also generating genuine help. Bill and Melinda Gates announced a massive $10bn programme to bring vaccination programmes to poor countries, and plenty of aid organisations hooked up with big business to finance or execute their programmes better.


Bill and Melinda Gates in DAvos
Bill and Melinda Gates pledged $10bn for a vaccination programme

Unlike previous years, when a "Davos consensus" emerged on key topics, this forum was characterised by confusion and uncertainty. Davos was missing "buzz", several participants said, it "lacked a theme".

"This is an unusual forum," said Samuel DiPiazza, retired chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers and member of the forum's business council. "People are very cautious with what they say, and try to stay out of the spotlight. It reflects the uncertainty of the situation."

Maybe, said Kenneth Hersh, chief executive of NGP Energy Capital Management, we simply face too many competing priorities that are overwhelming our systems - from water to food to climate change to the recovery. "We are tackling this with institutions like the UN and the IMF that were not designed to solve these problems."

In the world of business, however, uncertainty also presents plenty of opportunity. "Davos 2010 - and the year 2010 - is about risk, said Martin Halusa, the chief executive of private equity group Apax Partners. "Davos 2011 and the year 2011 will be about reward."

The real Davos

French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Davos
President Sarkozy chided bankers during his opening address

And yet there may be another reason why the buzz is missing. The fact is, not that much of the real business happens in the Davos Congress Centre anymore.

Yes, there are plenty of opportunities to catch up with top chief executives, especially when they are on a session's panel. But even though they are in town, these days the most powerful bosses are strangely absent from many proceedings.

Instead, they are cloistered away - partly in industry conclaves (called governors' meetings) organised by the forum itself, but even more so in small meetings and private briefings organised by their companies.

Some bosses don't go to a single Davos session. "I've got 70 meetings with business partners back-to-back, 30 minutes each," moaned one of them.

In other words, there's the official Davos where business leaders mix with academics and campaigners and journalists and social entrepreneurs, and there is a parallel Davos, a world of private and at times secretive meetings.

Davos moments

Despite all this, Davos has not yet lost its purpose of bringing together bright minds and creating opportunities to network.

WEF workshop
In workshops and sessions, Davos got down to business

It may have been snowing during this year's Davos, but inside saw yet another blizzard of business cards.

Joel Selanikio, boss of Kenya-based software company Datadyne, was on the hunt for funding and support.

"I'm on this panel with [Google chief executive] Eric Schmidt. How improbable is that? And he comes up to me and says 'Hi Joel'... - isn't it great?" Five days in Davos have yielded more than 200 business cards for him, all potential leads to build his fledgling business, which makes mobile phone software to provide healthcare in remote parts of Africa.

If there were a contest for the coolest business card in town, it would easily be won by self-described hacker (and all-round genius) Pablos Holman: it's deep black matt on both sides, revealing the text under ultraviolet light only.

But there is also plenty of serious and - at times - brutally direct business. "We've got this major client, we've got more than 100 people in his company," one senior executive of a consulting firm tells me, "and he walks up to me and says 'this doesn't work: one... two... three... .' Now I can nudge the team to ensure there are no more problems."

Let me entertain you

Dancers in traditional South African costumes
South Africa hosted a colourful farewell soiree

The sober mood in Davos probably matched the economic situation. Few stars had come to Davos. No Bono, no Sharon Stone and definitely no Angelina Jolie.

James Cameron, director of Avatar and Titanic, generated the most excitement - but even he was seen huddling with MIT professor Josh Tenenbaum to discuss cognitive science rather than living the Hollywood life.

Most receptions and night caps were subdued affairs, at least given Davos standards. Notable exceptions were the Google and McKinsey parties with their jam-packed dance floors - probably for old times' sake.

Only South Africa, this year's sponsor of the traditional farewell soiree, worked really hard to inject some party spirit, and the Davos crowd nibbled eagerly on delicacies like pink peppercorn-crusted crocodile and smoked Kudu.

No two years in Davos are the same. In 2011, the forum will be held in a much-extended congress centre.

The organisers may have to work hard to keep the Davos spirit going.

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