SIBER HEGNER IN THE 19TH CENTURY
Claus Nüscheler, CHN SHH
In autumn 1865, when Caspar Brennwald and Hermann Siber founded a company to promote trade between Switzerland and Japan, they hardly realized that they were laying the foundation for an enterprise which is still flourishing and expanding today, 125 years later.
At that time, the number of Swiss who were building up a new existence abroad was surprisingly high. Numerous names figure in our company's diaries and ledgers from those days which evidence Swiss enterprise in Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Japan. But only very few of these were destined to continue through several generations into present times.
Political difficulties, financial problems, the lack of suitable successors may be some of the reasons why today hardly a trace can be found of these trading companies.
But, despite their youth - Brennwald was 27 and Siber only 23 - the founders of our company proceeded systematically in the realization of their plans. Already in 1863/64, during a stay in Japan, as member of the first Swiss trade delegation, Brennwald had made a meticulous analysis of which Swiss goods would be liable to sell well in Japan and what Europe could obtain from Japan in return.
In addition to this review of the market, which was conducted with the greatest precision despite numerous impediments, both partners laid great store on personal contacts, inland and abroad. Visitors in Japan enjoyed their hospitality and assistance and were asked about their wishes. A contributory factor was that Brennwald officiated as Swiss consul besides his business activities. In those days, the Swiss federation could not afford ambassadors in such faraway countries.
During their visits to Europe, regular and potential dients and suppliers were visited and a sound network of business contacts establisbed.
Trade concentrated on silk-worm eggs, textiles, saltpeter, powder, old arms and even ships; concessions for a gasworks were negotiated and rice was sold. Financing other companies was the order of the day, even if the transactions were somewhat vague and often decidedly risky by today's standards. By 1870, the company had a capital of $165000 and apparently en-joyed an excellent reputation among the banks, for there is repeated mention of bank grants of generous credits to third parties with guarantees put up by our company.
The rhythm of business was very leisurely in those days when an answer from Europe by letter took three months. Telegrams were only sent in emergencies!
The trip from Yokohama to Tokyo, or Yedo as it was called, whether on horseback or by boat, took half a day, as long as there were no stops or even overnight stays on tbe way. The rail link was opened by the Mikado with great pomp and ceremony, but only on l4th October 1872!
There was no lack of social life and even a Swiss rifle association was founded in the early years of the company, and many an evening was spent over the Jass cards. The numerous ships from all countries, with a colourful variety of visitors, provided the impetus for receptions and merrymaking, where the Swiss were obviously delighted to attend and join in actively - there are various reports to be read of fights and carousing.
The innumerable fires and even attacks on travellers by errant ex-soldiers, or fights between foreign sailors and Japanese dockers, contributed to the excitement.
In 1872, Hermann Siber returned to Zurich for family reasons, where he looked after the Swiss branch of the company. Arnold Wolff was engaged on the staff and later made a partner in Yokohama. In 1878, Brennwald left Japan as well and returned to Europe. Wolff took his place as Swiss General Consul until his return in 1887.
Here, Robert Hegner-von Juvalta, the current PGM’s grandfather, entered the company in 1888 and at the same time several members of staff in Japan became partners. When Caspar Brennwald died in 1899 the company name was changed to Siber, Wolff & Co.