Farewell, Switzerland: A Davos post-mortem

February 2, 2011, 8:53 PM UTC
Davos, Graubünden
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From Jamie Dimon’s defense of bankers, Mike Duke’s less than rosy economic outlook, to the talking (and not talking) about the political turmoil in Egypt, here’s a look at some of this year’s highlights at Davos.

Toward the end of another long day in Davos last week I phoned home to San Francisco, where the day was just starting. My four-year-old daughter asked me: “Why is your work in Switzerland, Daddy?” A most wonderfully astute question, I thought, though I was unable to give her a satisfactorily succinct response. Upon my return, my wife asked, as perceptively as her daughter: “So, what do people talk about in Davos?”

I’ve thought quite a lot about these two questions. My “work,” such as it was, shifted at the end of January to Davos, site of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum and its endless panels, institutional meals, hallway conversations, slippery sidewalks, lavish and ear-thumping parties and, yes, a few ski runs. I went for the same reason I assume everyone else goes: Because I got invited and for the opportunity to rub shoulders with the people who are the tops in their fields across the globe, primarily in business and public service.

As for what people talk about, I think I’ve boiled that down to a simple answer now too: Other than general schmoozing and catching up with old friends and new (shoutout to journalists Daniel Gross and Peter Lattman) as well as ex-journalist Rik Kirkland and his always awesome wife Vicky), most everyone in Davos is advancing their agenda, or, as the case may be, agendas.

Advancing an agenda isn’t a bad thing, by the way. Sure, Jamie Dimon now famously was taking up the noble cause of defending bankers against unfounded criticism. But Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg also was helping educate opinion leaders (at breakfast) on the plight of sex slaves in Asia.

Causes, in fact, are one of the primary sideshows in Davos. Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, sponsored a dinner alongside News Corp. (NWSA) and the National Geographic Society to promote ‘catch shares management,’ a market-based approach to combating overfishing. (Private events are great theater in Davos, as the game is to combine attention-grabbing hosts with influential guests. EDF recruited pundits David Gergen and Arianna Huffington to moderate its event. At dinner, I sat between the crown prince and princess of Norway, a charming couple who had just returned to Europe from a two-month trip with their children in Asia.)

Business, overwhelmingly, is the business of Davos. Many don’t make time for the public panels and instead schedule back to back to back meetings with clients, suppliers, partners and journalists. My own meetings were informative. Scott Cutler, a top executive in New York with NYSE Euronext, made the case for how the Big Board is taking on Nasdaq for tech IPOs, having lowered its listing requirements several years ago. (The IPO of Demand Media (DMD) is a recent win.)

Steve Ellis, worldwide managing director of strategic consultancy Bain & Co., told me the single biggest mistake established companies make in mapping out a new strategy is to ignore the growth opportunities in their existing businesses. (He shared some examples, but not, as is the wont of secretive consultants, on the record.)

Leo Apotheker, the new CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), told me he’s generally pleased with U.S. growth, which is encouraging, even if it trails the growth rates of China and India. “I find it normal for a very large economy to have moderate growth for many years,” he said. As for HP’s growth, he noted: “People forget the absolute number. Last year we added $12 billion in revenues.”

The economy was easily among the top discussion topics of the conference: European debt, income equality and, less officially as it wasn’t formally on the program, Egypt’s turmoil, among others.

The Chinese economist Zhu Min, now an adviser to the International Monetary Fund, introduced the notion of a “three-speed economy” at a panel hosted by Michael Elliott. In recent years, he noted, the world has witnessed a two-speed economy: The developing nations have been in the fast lane, and the mature economies have been, well, mature. Now, he postulated, the U.S., with its massive monetary and fiscal stimulus programs, has inserted itself between the two. The causes for the improvement notwithstanding, this felt encouraging.

As I’ve written, Wal-Mart (WMT) CEO Mike Duke had a less rosy view of the U.S. economy. Optimism is the norm, he noted, for the affluent, who tend to be heartened by improvements in their stock portfolios. Wal-Mart shoppers are far more cautious, he said, and far more likely to spend freely at the beginning of the month, when their paychecks are newly cashed, than at the end.

For those so inclined, the actual business of the meeting, public panels, offer an exhaustive opportunity for education, information and mind stretching. I attended a fascinating panel on cutting-edge thinking in design. Highlights included a presentation by the Danish architect Bjark Ingels on urban renewal and a gripping talk on “data visualization” by Adam Bly, CEO of the New York magazine publisher Seed Media Group.

Kenneth and Carol Adelman led a playfully interactive session on “Shakespeare and Leadership” that was a welcome respite from the weightier topics at Davos. A highlight: Polonius advising his college-bound Laertes on how to succeed in life. The speech comes from Hamlet, source of such bon mots as “to thine own self be true” and “the apparel oft proclaims the man.”

I hosted a mind-stretching panel of my own, a Saturday morning session on “Creating a Digital Nervous System.” MIT professor Sandy Pentland and France Telecom Chairman Didier Lombard (whom I have moderated  on panels for two consecutive years now … good to see you Didier!), wowed the early risers with a vision of how devices and networks are connecting in unprecedented ways. The conversation quickly turned to privacy and security concerns, a sign of the times. Gold stars go to Wal-Mart’s Duke as well as Doug McMillon, head of Wal-Mart’s international unit, who attended the session. Turning out at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning may be normal in Bentonville, Ark., but it’s noteworthy in Davos.

Not all meetings are planned in Davos. Fortune.com managing editor Daniel Roth and I had a good chat in a café in the main conventional center with Time Warner (TWX) CEO Jeffrey Bewkes, otherwise known as the boss of all of our bosses. Bewkes had some choice words (not for the first time) for Netflix (NFLX) and Apple (AAPL). I’ll leave it there for now.

I had similarly impromptu chats with Adobe (ADBE) bigwig Rob Tarkoff (Adobe is transforming itself into an enterprise software company, he says), Hewlett-Packard printing chief Vyomesh Joshi (who is so excited about HP’s new Web-connected Envy printer that he insisted on lending me one to try out) and Dan Senor, whose book on Israeli startups is all the rage.

Unexpected meetings are the best. Stephen Buscher, the dapper former finance chief of Terralliance Technologies, showed up at the Time/Fortune cocktail party at the chic Panasian Gallery. Buscher is now based in Moscow with the energy-oriented investment firm Sistema. (Great to see you Steve!)

Most people can point to one event they attend in Davos that sticks with them after they’re gone. Last year that event for me was a private dinner hosted by News International that featured David Cameron (then an optimistic leader of the opposition in the U.K. and now the responsibility-weighted prime minister) and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (then an optimist on a bipartisan climate-change bill in the Congress).

This year, that special event for me was the Friday-night shabbat dinner hosted by Kevin Steinberg, a senior World Economic Forum official in the U.S. It’s an event open to Jews and non-Jews and often includes Israeli President Shimon Peres and Nobel laureate Elie Weisel, but not this year. It was a warm, wonderful, relaxing dinner where networking took a backseat to fellowship and joy, an opportunity to disengage from the hectic fervor of Davos — at least until the next party.

The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum is over, and normal life resumes. The world’s problems remain unresolved. Until next year in Davos, at least.