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DAVOS, Switzerland — It’s the political race everyone is afraid to talk about.
For 52 years the World Economic Forum has been synonymous with its founder and executive chair Klaus Schwab, whose humble manner belies what many who know him describe as great ambition and boundless energy, even into his mid-80s.
Today, WEF’s annual meeting attracts more billionaires and CEOs than any other event on earth, and more political leaders than any gathering outside the United Nations General Assembly.
So what (and who) comes after Klaus Schwab?
Schwab turns 85 in March, and it’s an open question whether he will pass the torch at all. Rupert Murdoch hasn’t. Warren Buffet hasn’t. In an era of active aging, why should Schwab?
POLITICO spoke to 29 WEF corporate strategic partners, current and former WEF staffers, and members of the forum’s committees and communities.
They all agree: Schwab tightly controls the succession discussion.
Even those who know Schwab well profess little knowledge of his plans. Forum staffers have become used to Schwab putting a high-profile political figure in the frame for succession, only to see the idea disappear before it becomes a plan. Schwab has been reluctant to talk about succession, and has consistently refused to discuss a timetable.
Five of the people POLITICO spoke to said they suspect he will stay in the job until he dies, like the monarchs and popes his critics say he styles himself after.
WEF insiders are typically unwilling to talk on-the-record about the organization’s post-Schwab future. All 29 people told POLITICO they feared being barred from WEF events, while others said even speaking anonymously could get them fired.
WEF is registered as a non-profit, but it’s also a multi-generation family business.
Schwab’s children Nicole and Olivier hold high-ranking positions in the organization, and his wife Hilde presides over a foundation and awards ceremony in Davos. WEF’s governing statutes give family members rights to board seats.
In 2017 Schwab brought in Børge Brende, a former Norwegian foreign minister, to serve as WEF’s president, while Schwab himself remained executive chair. If some outsiders expected the then 79-year-old to ease into the shadows, they were wrong: Per WEF’s website, the organization’s 800-strong staff is still “led by Founder and Executive Chairman Professor Klaus Schwab.”
Schwab’s long tenure and lack of a handover plan has allowed the organization to avoid hard questions about its future, said Marietje Schaake, a former Dutch member of the European Parliament and alumna of WEF’s Young Global Leaders program. She said that includes questions like: “Do all the lofty statements lead to meaningful change? Is there room for a more principled bottom line when it comes to human rights or corruption?”
Schwab’s departure would “create momentum to rethink the WEF’s role and identity,” said Schaake, who is now at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center.
Some of WEF’s biggest financial backers wonder if Schwab’s reluctance to name a successor is putting the organization’s future at risk: “Everyone’s talking about it,” whispered one WEF strategic partner as she took her mandatory forum Covid test on arrival in Davos, “and the whole thing [WEF] could fall apart if they don’t sort it out.”
While that would be an extraordinary outcome, there’s no doubt Schwab is frustrating some of the communities he claims to hold dearest.
“The Young Global Leader community has given up hope that he will ever name a replacement. The expectation is now that he will die in office,” said one of the cohort.
Asked to respond to criticism about the lack of a succession plan, Yann Zopf, head of media and executive committee member at WEF said the forum “has a strong institutional governance structure in place to ensure its continued ability to fully support its mission.” Zopf added that WEF’s 36-member Board of Trustees “decides any future institutional leadership appointments.”
WEF did not address a question from POLITICO about Article 11 of WEF’s governing statutes which states “the founder designates his successor.” It did not make Schwab available for an interview.
Public organization, private privilege
“There is no sign that Klaus will step down,” said one longtime WEF staffer, adding “he’s also in excellent health.”
We’ll have to take the staffer’s word for it: There are no U.S. presidential-style medical exams at WEF, and there’s no age limit for board members in Switzerland, where the forum is headquartered.
Schwab “has a God complex, and thinks he’s in the fittest 0.1 percent. But no one is immortal,” said one U.S.-based veteran of 20 Davos conferences. “It’s insane that they don’t have a succession plan to build public confidence around,” the person said.
When Schwab talks about WEF’s “world class governance system,” what he doesn’t mention is that WEF’s statutes reserve special privileges for Schwab and his family.
Schwab “or at least one member of his immediate family” is entitled to be a WEF trustee. And that board member or members also hold a veto over whether the organization can be wound down, according to WEF statutes.
A second long-time staff member argued Schwab could attempt to control the process from beyond the grave.
“Klaus has changed his will multiple times a year for decades, so it’s just impossible to know what he will decide in the end,” the person said.
“There are former heads of state who thought they were in the running 20 years ago,” the second staffer said, but they either got sick of waiting for an offer, or Schwab got sick of them.
European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde was long considered an ideal candidate for the role by WEF insiders, and remains a WEF trustee. In 2015, Schwab went as far as to describe her to the Financial Times as a person “who could step in,” if needed.
“But she’s not getting any younger, and that goes for many Davos men and women,” said a third former WEF staffer.
Salesforce Co-CEO Marc Benioff and Peter Maurer, former head of the International Committee for the Red Cross — both longtime WEF trustees — have also been suggested as potential Schwab successors, according to conversations with four WEF strategic partners.
Benioff declined to comment. Maurer did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Among those not holding WEF roles, former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair is also often tipped by WEF insiders.
For many years, forum insiders said they thought Klaus Schwab’s daughter Nicole would be anointed successor.
Nicole Schwab holds masters degrees from Harvard and Cambridge universities, and was founding director of WEF’s Young Global Leaders program. That’s an uber-elite group of under-40s eased into WEF’s orbit each year, including figures as diverse as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Kirill Dimitriev, head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund.
While she’s still a WEF trustee, Nicole Schwab has branched out from the forum — working as an adviser to nonprofits focused on “reforestation, wellbeing and women’s empowerment,” including 1t.org, a “platform for the one trillion tree community.”
Her brother, Olivier Schwab, works full-time for WEF as head of technology, and is a member of WEF’s 10-member managing board. He formerly led WEF’s China operations.
Schwab has batted away suggestions that his son is lined up to replace him, telling CNBC in 2020: “He could go his own way if he wanted to.”
Neither Nicole nor Olivier Schwab responded to a request for comment, and Olivier’s team blocked an in-person approach by a POLITICO reporter.
One of the first succession contenders from outside the Schwab family to gain public attention was Philipp Rösler, who arrived at WEF with high hopes of taking Schwab’s job.
Rösler joined the forum in 2014, fresh from a stint as Germany’s youngest vice chancellor. A cardiothoracic surgeon who was orphaned in Vietnam, Rösler served as both economy and technology minister in then Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet — a sweet spot for WEF’s business and intellectual interests.
Rösler, then 41, had a pedigree so well-matched to WEF that many assumed his succession was a fait accompli. “Everyone thought it would be Rösler,” said a former WEF Young Global Leader. But Rösler departed after three years on WEF’s Managing Board, amid suggestions by some staff that he simply wasn’t a good manager.
Rösler did not reply to a request for comment.
Among current WEF leaders, Brende, the former Norwegian foreign minister, is seen as the most likely candidate by the people POLITICO spoke to, possibly as a transition figure.
“He’s young enough, has the visibility, credentials, experience and is widely accepted within the organization,” said the former member of staff. “Klaus and Børge really developed a solid tandem working relationship, in a way that has perhaps never happened in the forum’s history,” the individual said.
Brende has had three stints at the forum. Before he took on the role of WEF President in 2017, he worked for WEF as managing director in 2008 and returned once again to WEF in 2011 for two years before returning to Oslo as foreign minister. Brende did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
But similar to the shadowboxing that occurs around the appointment of presidents to the European Commission (the EU’s executive body) and the European Council (the conclave of national leaders) the real front runners may emerge only at the last minute.
Another inside contender is WEF Managing Director Jeremy Jurgens who heads the forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a pet project of Schwab’s. He also oversees WEF’s Asian operations and all industry and tech initiatives.
Jurgens did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
While WEF is happy to recommend a “proactive, open and social succession strategy” for others on its website, some are simply sick of Schwab’s form of control.
“There clearly is value to this organization, and it’s a great network. But it’s a personality-driven organization, so I don’t take it seriously anymore,” said the former Young Global Leader.