How did Swiss-born Erik Vidal wind up selling toothbrushes in Brazil?
Vidal laughs at the question. “It all started over a beer with some friends,” he says. It was 2005, and Vidal had just sold the software company he founded in Basel. He was thinking about what to do next. One of his drinking companions was in charge of international expansion at Curaprox, a Swiss company that makes oral hygiene products. Vidal asked whether the company already had a distributor in Brazil.
“It’s all yours,” the friend said.
So that same year, Vidal went to Brazil, where he had spent part of his childhood. He teamed up with a dentist and an old playmate of his brother who had since become a lawyer, and together they founded Curaden in Sao Paulo.
It was a slow start. Vidal says it took two years before they sold the first toothbrushes. Gathering the necessary permits and navigating Brazilian bureaucracy was wearisome. But in 2010, the company doubled its annual sales, and it now sells 10 million toothbrushes a year, ranking fourth in the Brazilian market – despite the fact that Curaprox products cost much more than those of competitors like Colgate and OralB.
Vidal attributes some of his company’s success to the support it received from Swisscam, the Swiss-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce. At the CIOSP congress – one of the biggest dental-care events in the world attended by about 70,000 dentists – Curaden was invited to join the Swiss pavilion. This allowed the company to benefit from the Swiss label – a symbol of quality to many Brazilians.
“If we had gone alone as a small start-up company, they would have given us a tiny stand at the back next to the toilets,” Vidal says. “Now we take up 200 square meters in the Swiss pavilion and everyone wants to have a stand next to ours, because we attract all the visitors.”
Founded in 1945, Swisscam advises Swiss businesses in Brazil and coordinates workshops on a range of issues from Brazilian law and politics to marketing and communications. Last year, Swiss companies exported goods worth almost 1.9 million Swiss francs to Brazil, while imports totalled 1.2 million Swiss francs.
Allure of Brazil
Emanuel Baltis, the president of Swisscam in Sao Paulo, acknowledges that Brazil – the world’s seventh biggest economy – has considerable allure for Swiss companies. With its vast market of 200 million inhabitants and its abundance of natural resources, it is key to companies wanting to gain a foothold in the South American continent.
Swiss firms operating in the chemicals, machinery, food, technology, health, cosmetics, biotechnology and luxury products industries have found lucrative business in Brazil, he says. But he warns companies against making their first international foray to Brazil. Obstacles include “high bureaucratic hurdles, a complex tax system, antiquated labour laws and the vastness of the country,” he says. Local expertise is essential, he cautions.
“It’s important to invest for the long term and to be able to sustain the frequent swings in the economy and crises,” he says.
Curaden’s success in part stems from its strategic decision to go directly to dentists and pharmacies, Vidal says. “We knew our products wouldn’t be the cheapest,” he says. “But their selling point is their quality. That has been recognised by dentists, and they have recommended us further.”
One of the recent challenges has been the recession that has plagued Brazil since 2014. But Vidal says Curaden’s sales have not been affected – in part because of the vast untapped market.
“There are 77,000 pharmacies in Brazil,” he says. “So far we are only represented in 15,000. We are newcomers in a growth market.”
Would Vidal recommend Brazil to other Swiss companies?
“Absolutely,” he says. “Consumer products are always in demand. And in any area where quality is important, Swiss products do well.“