Setting up a company in Switzerland: Incorporation and Shares

Time to read: 9 min

Founders

At least one founder (either individual or legal entity) is necessary to form a corporation. Founders and shareholders are not subject to any nationality or residence requirements. Directors must be shareholders and at least one director must be resident in Switzerland. Another restriction relates to the acquisition by non-resident aliens of shares in a Swiss company whose assets consist mainly of Swiss real estate: these transactions are subject to prior authorization. Prior authorization is further required for non-residents to own and operate a Swiss bank, or to acquire an existing Swiss bank.

Articles of incorporation

Articles of incorporation must have the following minimum content:

  • the company name and address;
  • the business purpose of the company;
  • the amount of share capital and the contributions made thereto;
  • the number, par value and type of shares;
  • the calling of the general meeting of shareholders and the voting rights of the shareholders;
  • the naming of the bodies which take care of the management and the auditing of the company;
  • the form in which the company must publish its notices.

Optional clauses are those which must only be listed if founders intend to adopt additional provisions, such as the directors’ participation in the net profits, the issue of preferred shares, the delegation of directors’ authority, the issue of authorized capital or conditional capital.

Founders report

The founders must provide a written statement giving particulars of the nature and condition of contributions in kind or proposed acquisitions of assets, and the appropriateness of their valuation. A founders’ statement is also required when the capital of a company shall be contributed by conversion of shareholder loans and advances. The auditors have to review the founders report and confirm in writing that it is complete and truthful.

Raising of Funds

After subscription to all shares of capital stock, a minimum of 20% of the par value but not less than CHF 50,000 must be placed in escrow with a bank. The funds may only be released to the management after the company has been registered in the Commercial Register.

Incorporation Meeting

The corporation is formed at the incorporation meeting, which is held in the presence of all the shareholders and a public notary. This latter declares that the capital stock is fully subscribed and that the minimum payments have been made. Thereafter, the shareholders adopt the articles of incorporation and appoint the bodies corporate (board of directors, auditors etc.). Finally, a notarised deed must be drawn up recording the resolutions of the general meeting.

Registration

After incorporation, the company must be registered with the Commercial Register. This registration is published in the Swiss Official Gazette of Commerce. It discloses details such as the purpose of the company, its seat, the names of the shareholders (unless they opted for issuing bearer shares) and the names of the directors. Only at the time of registration the company acquires legal entity status. Shares may not be issued prior to registration.

Upon formation, a one-time federal stamp duty of 3% is due on the capitalisation of the company. This stamp duty is assessed on the price at which the shareholder buys the shares. Any premium above par value is also subject to this duty. Furthermore, there are registration and notary fees and, generally, fees due to agents who act as founders to the new entity.

Corporate Name

The corporation is registered under a firm name, which must be distinguished from those of all other corporations already existing in Switzerland. In principle, the corporation is free to choose any kind of name. The name may not however be misleading or otherwise untruthful. The use of national or territorial designations is not permitted unless specifically authorized by the Federal and Cantonal Registers of Commerce. If a personal name is used, a designation showing the corporate nature must be added.

Share Capital

A public company is required to have a minimum capital of CHF 100,000 divided into shares with a minimum face value of CHF 0,01, while a limited liability company is required to have a minimum capital of CHF 20,000.  In the case of a public company, all shares must be subscribed at the time of formation. Capital contributions may be in cash or in kind. If the contribution is made in kind, the company must have access to such assets immediately after registration in the Commercial Register. The articles must describe the property, its value, the shareholder from whom it is received and the number of shares issued in return. The acceptance by the company of contributions in kind requires the approval of at least two thirds of the shares represented at the incorporation meeting.

The general meeting of shareholders may authorize the board to increase the share capital within a period of 2 years. It is within the competence of the Board to decide if, when, and to what extent, the capital should be increased.

The general meeting may provide in the articles for a conditional capital increase. The purpose of issuing conditional capital is, alternatively, to secure options and conversion rights in connection with warrant issues or convertible bonds, or to create employee shares. The increase of capital takes place at the same time, and to the same extent, as the exercise of the respective rights.

Different Types of Shares

Swiss corporation law distinguishes between the following categories of shares:

  • Bearer shares – Bearer shares may not be issued until the full issue price has been paid in. They are transferable by delivery and the corporation cannot restrict their transfer. Bearer shares are very popular in Switzerland because many owners prefer to protect their identity.
  • Registered shares – Registered shares are subscribed as called by the corporation and do not need to be fully paid in on issue. They are transferable by endorsement or assignment, generally without restriction. The company must keep a share ledger listing the owners’ names and places of residence. The entry must be certified on the share certificate by the Board. The buyer of incorrectly transferred registered shares cannot exercise personal membership rights. The articles may provide for subsequent conversion of registered shares into bearer shares and vice versa.
  • Restricted transferability of registered shares – To prevent unfriendly takeovers, the articles may provide for restrictions on the free transferability of shares. By law those restrictions are however limited.
  • Preferred shares – The general meeting of shareholders is entitled to issue preferred shares or to convert existing common shares into preferred shares. The holders of preferred shares enjoy certain preferences such as cumulative or non-cumulative dividends, priority in the proceeds of liquidation and a preferential right to subscribe to new shares. This preferential treatment must be provided for by the articles or be adopted by the votes of at least two thirds of all shares represented.
  • Voting shares – In general, each share is entitled to one vote. Since shares of differing value may be issued, each vote may not represent the same amount of capital contribution. Voting shares, therefore, provide those shareholders who represent a financial minority with the decision making power within the corporation. The issue of voting shares is permitted in the ratio of 1 : 10 to ordinary shares.
  • Profit sharing certificates – The general meeting of shareholders can issue profit sharing certificates in favour of persons who have an interest in the company through previous capital contributions, shareholdings, creditors’ claims, employees, or similar relationships. Profit sharing certificates may grant rights to a share in profits, a share in the liquidation proceeds or rights to subscribe to new shares. They do not procure any membership rights. By law, profit sharing certificates must not have a par value nor be issued in exchange for contributions characterized as assets.
  • Certificates of participation – The certificate of participation is a non-voting share, with the holder of such certificates having basically the same status as shareholders apart from the right to vote. The participation capital must not exceed double the share capital. Companies have until June 30, 1997 to comply with this requirement unless their participation capital was more than double the share capital on January l, 1985.
Nicola Gianoli
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