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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Big Money Talks at Davos Conference

GENEVA -- When President Bill Clinton sweeps into a snowy Swiss Alpine village this week, he will be the first sitting president, and thus the biggest star ever, to attend the glittering corporate conference known by the name of its location - Davos.

The meeting is so high powered that Clinton is only one of 33 national leaders going up the mountain this year. Also expected for the meetings starting Thursday are Prime Ministers Ehud Barak of Israel and Tony Blair of Britain, and King Abdullah of Jordan.

Attending as well will be 1,020 senior executives from the world's top corporations, including Bill Gates of Microsoft and Steve Case of America Online.

No one will stand prouder at the six-day conference than Klaus Schwab, the entrepreneurial Swiss business professor who 30 years ago launched the Davos conference on a shoestring. He has turned its plenary sessions and panel discussions into forums for cutting-edge ideas and made the gathering arguably the world's most elite event for schmoozing and making contacts.

It turns out, however, that it's not just the power of ideas, or even the participants' prestige, that determines who prepares the program and who goes onstage at Davos. The companies that pay the most money to the Schwab-led foundation that organizes the conference tend to be the ones whose executives run the show, according to a survey of this year's preliminary program.

Schwab said companies are represented on the podium because they're the best and brightest in the corporate world, not because of the checks they sign. But some participants said the overlap between contributors and speakers casts a shadow of commercialism.

"He's got the people who put up the money chairing the meetings. It's awful; it's gotten too big. I don't know why I'm going," said one private-sector American who has attended several Davos meetings and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Four of the five co-chairmen for this year's conference are from corporations that paid $78,000 to $250,000 to the foundation, called the World Economic Forum. Executives from those companies and other high-spending "partners," as corporate contributors are called, are heavily represented among speakers at the sessions. Partner companies also help choose session subjects and suggest participants.

Corporations have been involved in the conference for years, but only since 1998 have they paid so much money and played such a large role.

Over the years, Schwab has given favored places at Davos to two start-up companies he created, included one headed by his nephew. And the millions of dollars companies pay to belong to the World Economic Forum have helped Schwab build an institution so wealthy it was able to pay 80 percent of the cost outright for its $23 million headquarters on the shores of Lake Geneva.

There's no evidence Schwab has profited personally from the conference except in the annual salary he receives from the foundation, which he said is around $225,000.

According to the World Economic Forum's annual report, it had $32 million in revenue in the 1999 fiscal year, 57 percent more than in 1995. Most of that came from the conferences it organized around the world, including about $10 million directly from Davos. Expenses were about $31.4 million; the difference was added to the foundation's capital.