A thirst for adventure

ETH alumna Martina Pfeiffer: ’The things I learned at ETH are useful for t
ETH alumna Martina Pfeiffer: ’The things I learned at ETH are useful for the discussions we have here at work on ingredients and other issues.’ (Photograph: ETH Zurich / Désirée Good)
Sport and an interest in healthy eating took Martina Pfeiffer first to ETH Zurich and then to Swiss beverage producer Rivella. Her active lifestyle has always kept her at the top of her game.  

Martina Pfeiffer is in good spirits as she ushers us into a meeting room above the shop floor at the headquarters of Rivella in Rothrist. Earlier today, she and her team raised a glass to a new variety of the soft drink Rivella. Due to hit the shelves a few weeks from now, the details of the launch are still strictly under wraps. But this morning’s tasting session was an opportunity for Pfeiffer and her colleagues to toast the success of their new product - in small tasting glasses rather than the plastic bottles that will soon be rolling off the production line.

It’s moments like these that Pfeiffer loves about her job. "I always used to see my work in terms of management methods and technical skills," she explains. "But now I’ve got more scope to shape the business. I like achieving things as part of a team."

Forty-seven-year-old Pfeiffer has worked at Rivella AG for six years, first as production manager and then as head of the company’s supply chain, a position she has held for just over a year. With around 100 people reporting to her, she is responsible for every step along the value chain, from procurement, planning and production to maintenance, quality assurance, logistics and customer service. Development and engineering also fall within her remit, and her position on the board means she has to tackle strategic questions on the company’s future: Which new products should Rivella develop? Where should they focus investment? Which areas of business could benefit from digitalisation? And how can they reduce their environmental footprint?

Pfeiffer takes a sip from a bottle of blueberry-and-rhubarb-flavoured "Focuswater". This line of vitamin water products is part of the Rivella Group’s portfolio, along with the Michel brand of fruit juice products that are currently being bottled on the shop floor below. "When I go shopping, I certainly spend longer in the drinks section than I used to!" says Pfeiffer with a smile. "I like to take a look at what the competition is up to - and how we measure up."

Fascinated by sports and nutrition

Pfeiffer’s interest in beverages and food in general goes back many years. She was a keen athlete in her youth, competing in swimming events and later in triathlons. She has always been interested in the beneficial effects of a well-balanced diet. Inspired by her interest in science subjects and what she describes as her practical nature, she enrolled at ETH and completed a degree in Food Science.

Eager to take us on a quick tour of the plant, Pfeiffer dons a hairnet and work coat. She also pulls on a pair of steel-toed safety boots. Then we’re off to the production hall, where bottles are filled and packed - a huge space full of automated machinery and relatively few workers, who are responsible for monitoring production. "Quality is never an accident" says a sign in the anteroom, where Pfeiffer washes and disinfects her hands.

On the shop floor, she pauses in front of a machine packaging bottles into six-packs and tells us about the dissertation she wrote at ETH, which required her to investigate the omega-3 fatty acid content of fish and explore its relevance for human nutrition. "The things I learned at ETH are useful for the discussions we have here at work on ingredients and other issues," she says. After completing her degree, Pfeiffer obtained a doctorate in nutritional science from the ETH Department of Agricultural and Food Science. Her doctoral project also dealt with the topic of nutrition, this time in the context of exercise and human metabolism.

When colleagues ask her for tips on sports nutrition, she strikes a reassuring note: "A balanced diet will take you a long way." Equally pragmatic is her advice on healthy eating: "Nutrition should always be viewed in relation to physical exercise. The more you move, the less you have to worry about what you eat."

Giant screen for team meetings

Pfeiffer continues to keep active. She regularly spends her lunch break jogging along the bank of the River Aare towards Boningen or as far as Aarburg, which is a 7-kilometre, 40-minute round trip from Rivella’s headquarters in Rothrist. But she no longer tackles the Olympic distances she used to cover in triathlons, nor the 1,000-step hiking trail up to the top of Born mountain, which has a punishing 300-metre elevation gain. "You have to be crazy to do that!" she says with a laugh.

When Pfeiffer took up her new post at Rivella, the management team made a short video to present her to the workforce. It shows her kitted out with hiking gear and a rucksack on top of a mountain, rock climbing with helmet, ropes and carabiners, and riding a mountain bike. "For me, exercise is all’about nature, fresh air and, hopefully, a little bit of sun!" she says. Recently, however, she also took a shine to yoga. "It’s great to keep learning new things," she says.

Having completed our tour of the production hall, Pfeiffer heads up the stairs to the office wing on the third floor. In the corridor, she stops in front of a giant screen that offers a view over the shop floor. Tapping her fingers on the screen, she scrolls through production schedules, error messages, consumption data and downtime figures. Staff can enter this data in the system directly from their company smartphones.

At 7.30 a.m. each morning, the team gathers in front of the screen, joined by Pfeiffer. "Getting everyone together is a great way to improve communication," she says. The meeting is based on the concept of shop floor management, which takes management to the front lines and brings all levels of the hierarchy together to promote a culture of continuous improvement. Pfeiffer also lectures on this subject at various universities as an industry guest speaker.

After completing her studies at ETH, Pfeiffer spent a year working at Coca Cola in Brüttisellen before heading into the mountains for six years, where she held various positions at mineral water bottler Valser Mineralquellen. "It felt a bit like emigrating, but without actually leaving Switzerland!" says Pfeiffer, who grew up on Lake Zurich and had spent most of her life in the city. This was followed by a brief stint at Swiss bakery JOWA before she finally joined Rivella.

Childhood memories

When she was a kid, Pfeiffer says, everyone drank Rivella in the ski huts, and she has always had a soft spot for the brand. In fact, Rivella - which was founded in 1952 by student Robert Barth - is regarded in Switzerland as a kind of national beverage. Its close ties to the dairy industry certainly help - Rivella contains whey, the liquid that remains when the protein and fat are removed from milk.

The Swiss drink, on average, 9 litres of Rivella a year per head, according to the company’s figures. A few years ago, the beverage was officially recognised as part of Switzerland’s culinary heritage. Pfeiffer says working for a well-known brand is a big motivation. The company, which has 231 full-time employees, is still owned by the founder’s family. This has fostered a close-knit corporate culture, says Pfeiffer, with the workforce referring to themselves as "Rivellaners".

Back in her office, Pfeiffer takes off her hairnet and coat, but leaves her safety boots on. There’s just time to ask about her goals for the future. "To stay healthy. And active!" she says. And how about the ambition that has driven her to so many sporting heights? Still very much intact, it seems. "I want to achieve what’s best for me," she says, referring not to traditional career aspirations, but rather activities that bring her fulfilment. "I’m not someone who gives up easily!"


Martina Pfeiffer is a member of the Rivella Group management board and head of the company’s supply chain activities. After studying Food Science at ETH Zurich, she obtained a doctorate in Nutritional Science from the ETH Department of Agricultural and Food Science. Pfeiffer lives with her partner in Staufen in the Swiss canton of Aargau.

This text appeared in the 24/01 issue of the ETH magazine Globe.

Andres Eberhard