Robert Debes was born on 21 June 1878 in Wuppertal-Elberfeld, Germany.
At the age of 19 Robert Debes worked as a bank clerk in Germany and later in Italy. After gaining some work experience, he began his studies at a commercial college in Cologne in 1904, where, after two years of study, he graduated as a teacher of commercial subjects. In 1908, Debes earned his doctorate in national economics (Banque de Commerce de Genève 1845-1907) from University of Zurich.
His academic performance allowed Debes to obtain a professorship in business administration at HSG, then a business college, even before he was awarded a doctoral degree. Debes was a gifted teacher who knew how to explain difficult topics in an accessible way. Thus, even first-year students could follow his lectures in accounting.
In 1910, Robert Debes published his own study, which was a start for the first series of school’s publications. He also published several monographs on financial policy and accounting in Zurich and St.Gallen.
During Robert Debes' term of service as the president of HSG between 1932 and 1938, HSG obtained the right to confer habilitation (a qualification to teach as professor), with the first habilitation being conferred in 1936. Among other things, Debes founded the Institute of Chemistry and Physics and the Swiss Institute for Administrative Courses.
Robert Debes organised further training courses for accountants, was active in the examination commission of the predecessor organisation of today’s Swiss Institute of Certified Accountants and Tax Consultants. He was valued as expert in accountants examinations for many years. Debes was also a member of the supervisory committee of the Institute of Business Administration at ETH. He also wrote various entries in dictionaries and encyclopaedias for business administration and accounting. Sometimes Debes gave lectures outside HSG, especially within the framework of the ‘Association of Commercial Employees’.
After his retirement in 1949, Debes was appointed Honorary Professor in 1950. As professor emeritus he continued to be active at HSG. He held various practical classes in accounting and in business teacher training until 1956.
Robert Debes died on 9 March 1962 in St. Gallen.