A fascination for numbers Meandering between two worlds

Figures are sacred to the six members of Swissmedic's Finance and Controlling team. But that’s where the clichés about Swissmedic’s accounting department end. What does the Finance team actually do though? We asked them, starting with Division Head Cornelia Schönthal.

Cornelia Schönthal is the hub of the Finance and Controlling team. She oversees the budget and negotiates with the Management Board. Anything of financial relevance to Swissmedic lands on her desk, and she and her team make sure that Swissmedic remains on an even financial keel. “It’s a responsible job”, she tells us. But that’s exactly why she likes it. She enjoys meaningful challenges. “What Swissmedic does is important to society, and that gives what I do a sense of purpose.”

Passion and responsibility

Cornelia Schönthal is the veteran of the six-person team, having worked at Swissmedic for 19 years. Not only does she contribute a lot of expertise, she helps keep the mood upbeat. She is the cheerful soul that every good team needs to ensure everyone is happy. As a line manager, her “enormous patience”, openness and her high regard for others are appreciated. She says that it's always worth investing in a good team: “People who like to come to the office do better work.” Each member of the team is different and contributes new qualities. “But we’re still very similar. The figures are what connects us all.” The figures and perfectionism.

“The figures are what connects us all.”
Cornelia Schönthal

The Finance team’s work has to be perfect. After all, it is responsible for financial management at Swissmedic. Cornelia Schönthal and her team advise the Management Board on all financial affairs, monitor the business figures, warn about risks, explain the time recording system and are responsible for budgets, the annual financial statements and the payroll. “In our job, everything has to be 100% correct”, says Cornelia Schönthal. The fact that she thinks logically, is good with computers and has a “really good memory” helps. “Finance is my passion”, the business economist tells us. She enjoys working in a world where things are either black or white, right or wrong. It’s a world that sometimes almost gets overlooked in the science-dominated everyday life of Swissmedic. Cornelia Schöntal brings these two worlds together. Because, she says, as rational as she is, she also likes chaotic people. Just like Ticino. Her cats. And her travel throughout the world. She says that chaos expands your horizons. It shows her that – with the exception of numbers – everything is relative.

Cornelia Schönthal
Cornelia Schönthal loves the 4 seasons. "My favourite number is actually 7."
Sarah Swart
Sarah Swart’s favourite number? "Definitely 31. My birthday’s on the 31st of a month."

“The values are tangible”

Sarah Swart, who joined the accounting team in spring 2023, enjoys the tolerant atmosphere at Swissmedic.

“I never want to have a job that doesn’t involve figures again. I’m completely passionate about them. I love accounting because it’s so logical. And because I can play the detective. If the numbers don’t add up, I keep looking until I’ve solved the case. While accounts that always add up first time would be the best thing ever, they would also be terribly boring.

I could spend hours entering figures in the accounting system. It’s completely immersive. Maybe it’s this pragmatic side of the job that makes it so enjoyable. And the people too, of course. In my last job, the only thing that counted was “sales, sales, sales!” and that was very stressful. Now I’m at Swissmedic, work makes sense again. We make sure that people in Switzerland always have a supply of good medicines. I’m currently still in the initiation phase, assisting the team with controlling, entering accounts payable, checking the arithmetic and helping the boss with the budget. That way I get to see everything before I’m given my own responsibilities.

I’m blown away by how family-friendly Swissmedic is. The values it espouses are tangible. I’m a single parent, – that was a pragmatic decision too: When my children's father went back to South Africa, I stayed in Switzerland. We would have had to live as if we were in a prison in South Africa, with a security fence around the house. I didn't want that – life there is no bed of roses. But it’s challenging to balance the demands of seven-year-old twins with a job that’s a long journey from home. Nevertheless, I was motivated to increase my hours to 70 percent. And it’s really working out well. My team colleagues are hugely tolerant. Nobody rolls their eyes if a mum is a bit late to the office or occasionally missing because one of her children is sick. None of the other places I’ve worked has ever had that kind of attitude to mothers.”

No room for errors – the attraction of accounting

Favourite number 8: Angela Haslebacher, administrator at Swissmedic.

“I never liked maths. But I'm good at logic. Accounting is practical. And interesting, because it gives you a full overview. Everything is structured, there's no room for manoeuvre. Over time, you learn the logic and the connections between the numbers and find errors more quickly. Has something been entered incorrectly? Or have the bank charges on a foreign transaction been forgotten? In any case, I'm happy to have colleagues with so much experience to support me. They're really helpful. And funny. They help me to grow – both professionally and personally.

My job at Swissmedic is exactly what I always imagined my future job would be. I work in a great team and the job and conditions are both very good. My work mainly involves bank transactions in the form of receivables. At the end of the month I do the accounts. I cross-check the bank figures every week. Even though it’s laborious, the job’s always different.

I did a commercial apprenticeship. I don’t know yet whether I’ll train to become an accountant or take my career in a different direction. It’s great that Swissmedic offers me an opportunity to train. First, though, I want to understand how the different accounting elements fit together in practice. I also want to get further with my sport. I’ve been playing volleyball for 13 years – in number 8 position, my favourite number. I train five times a week and have recently started playing in the top league. Even though I don't want to go professional I’d still like to know what my limits are – just how far my potential will take me. Training clears my head, so it’s the perfect antidote to all the figures.”

Angela Haslebacher
She’s as ambitious a volleyball player as she is an accountant; Administrator Angela Haslebacher.
Renato Buchs
Controller Renato Buchs enjoys trying things out. And if it doesn’t work, he looks for a different approach.

“‘Tropicalisation’ loosened me up”

Controller Renato Buchs is in charge of strategies and vision.

Renato Buchs, what’s your favourite number?
3 – like my strategy for interviews, where I always concentrate on three issues. It’s scientifically proven that people forget everything else anyway.

How important are figures in your job at Swissmedic?
Not particularly. I’m a sort of foreign body or outsider in the accounting team, since I’m more in charge of vision, strategies and risk management.

What sort of strategies are those?
Every four years we set new focal areas. We're currently concentrating on digitally transforming our working tools. Besides that, we want to encourage innovative research, for example by helping start-ups successfully launch innovative medicinal products.

And what exactly is your role?
I support the Management Board in analysing the last four years – where were we successful and where were we not? Then we look at the bigger picture: What are other authorities doing, what’s happening in the industry, research, industry associations and politics? What medicines are being pushed and what effects is that having on Switzerland as a centre of pharmaceutical activity? By doing so, we can work out where we stand and define a specific way forward. I’m already checking if we’re on track, since we have to account for ourselves to Parliament and the Federal Council at the end of the year.

What do you like about your job?
I’m fascinated by the variety. I enjoy trying things out, and if something doesn’t work I look for a different approach. I don't just define myself by my work though. Before joining Swissmedic, I worked for an NGO (non-governmental organisation) in Nicaragua. That taught me to be more relaxed about life.

Because you realised that everything’s relative?
Yes. I call it “tropicalisation”. I understood that there are always different ways of looking at things, and that the “right” way doesn’t have to be “right” for everyone. As a business economist, I worked with smallholder farmers. This experience broadened my horizons hugely. I understood how big the gap between rich and poor, knowledge and supposed lack of knowledge, north and south still is. And how our way of thinking is still shaped by a mindset of colonisation.

The unifier

Swissmedic’s 550 employees can’t avoid meeting CATS specialist: Nicole Messerli.

It’s never long before people who start a new job at Swissmedic have an appointment with Nicole Messerli. That’s because she is the person responsible for teaching them to use the flexitime recording system. She explains the tricks and quirks of CATS, the internal working time and performance recording programme. Nicole Messerli knows everyone at Swissmedic and as such acts as a bridge between the small Finance team and the hundreds of scientists who work at the Agency. She says this is important because the accounting team are also a service unit. “Having face-to-face contact with us makes them realise we’re just ordinary people as well.” She also enters the accounts payable – in other words, all outgoings for services the Agency buys in. Invoices for the last lift repair, for example. Or for investments in new equipment by the Agency's laboratory.

Nicole Messerli, who has worked for Swissmedic for 16 years, says she is a numbers person. She feels numbers are facts – logical, pragmatic and exact, like she is. “Figures give me grounding and bearings.” During her commercial apprenticeship, she tells us, she didn’t understand the theory behind any of the concepts – such as debit and credit or assets and liabilities. “But it all fell into place when I did it for real, and then the accounting bug really bit me.” And it’s never let go since. Except once a year, when she packs her bags and sets off with her family and camper van for Holland. Or wherever the whim takes her. From place to place, eight to ten weeks a year. Every day as it comes. Plenty of freedom. Plenty of scope. And very little perfectionism.

Nicole Messerli
Nicole Messerli’s favourite number is 9. She wore the number 9 vest for the 14 years she played korbball, a sport similar to basketball played in Switzerland.
Saskia Schnidrig
She looked for an employer whose core business is important to society, and decided on Swissmedic. Saskia Schnidrig, the latest addition to the accounting team.

“I’ve got the numbers bug”

Saskia Schnidrig, the most recent addition to the team, insists on numbers always being even – right down to the temperature display in her car.

Saskia Schnidrig, when did you last take a medicinal product and why?
Pretty much exactly a year ago, after I broke two ribs show- jumping.

Now you’ve recently started working for a medicinal product regulatory agency. How important is an employer’s core business from an accountant’s perspective?
I think it’s very important. In fact, it was one of the main reasons – apart from the good working conditions – why a job at Swissmedic appealed to me. I want to be able to identify with my employer and stand behind them. Swissmedic does important work in human health, so it’s great to work here.

So what are your first impressions?
Great. I already feel like I’ve worked here for ages. The team’s made me feel very welcome. Everyone here is really friendly. When you're surrounded by such great people, you're happy to come to work. Swissmedic offers its employees enormous quality of life. I’ve never had working conditions like these before, so I appreciate them very much.

What role do numbers play in your life?
A very important one. I’m much less keen on languages. I admit that I didn’t like maths at school and never wanted a job that involved figures. But when I ended up in accounting at 18, I realised straight away that I belong here. In the meantime the numbers bug has bitten me and given me a bit of a quirk: I insist on numbers always being even. Even the temperature in my car is always set to an even number.

And what’s your favourite number?
Actually, it’s 1. But since 1’s odd, I’m going to say 22. I know 2 would be even, but it looks lonely on its own, so 22. It’s a number that just looks really nice. I don’t know exactly why.