John Key sparked controversy when he staked a claim for New Zealand to be "the Switzerland of the South Pacific".

Critics chimed in arguing the former Prime Minister was simply spruiking this country as a low tax bolthole for the world's elite.

But the 40 chief executives and chairs of leading New Zealand companies who are off to Switzerland next weekend are in search of deeper answers to the Swiss success story.

At the heart of a one-week study tour organised by leading think tank the New Zealand Initiative is a quest to examine the role "localism" plays in the Swiss economic success story.


Mercury chief executive Fraser Whineray - who is leading the business mission - observes that unlike New Zealand, in Switzerland much power is devolved away from central Government - or "centralism" - to the local government.

As NZ Initiative executive director Oliver Hartwich explains, in Switzerland political authority is built from the bottom up. "The Swiss federal Government derives its legitimacy from the 26 cantons, not the other way round. As a result, [it] only plays a subsidiary role, carrying out limited competencies that account for less than one-third of total taxes and spending.

"That in some respects is the polar opposite of New Zealand."

Says Whineray: "Kiwis have a good nose if it sounds too good to be true."

But he expects the group will develop fresh insights into what strategies could be used, for instance, to meet the challenges posed by the leap in net migration which has had effects across the board and caused friction between central and local government, particularly in Auckland.

Switzerland has been ranked at first place in the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index for the seventh consecutive year. It is one of the world's most successful countries; home to world-class companies and research institutions with an excellent education system and a highly efficient labour market.

Whineray says the Swiss education and health systems will also be part of the mix, as well as high-technology manufacturing.

On the agenda is Google's largest presence outside Silicon Valley, its European headquarters in Zurich where the company's Machine Learning project will be studied, with other advances in artificial intelligence.


There will also be a focus on region development policies in the Italian-speaking canton Ticino.

The mission includes CEOs, chairmen or senior representatives from Air New Zealand, Fonterra, PwC, Infratil, the four major trading banks, advisory firms and investment banks.