Meetings with Remarkable People: My Conversation with Stef Wertheimer in Tel Aviv

While visiting Israel last week for the Journey Conference, I learned about some inspiring developments in the Middle East.  Israel is rocking!

It was an illuminating experience for me.  In the USA, the mainstream media diet includes a steady supply of sensational stories about the Middle East, featuring suicide bombings, terrorism, rocket attacks and reprisals.
So one might arrive in Tel Aviv expecting fear and chaos.  But the reality is that Tel Aviv today is a thriving modern Mediterranean metropollis with a booming high tech industry, a solid economy that sidestepped the global fiscal crisis, and all the trappings of prosperity, including high rise towers, exotic sports cars, flourishing nightlife, groovy boutiques, a freshly-restored Old City and generally a very fun scene.
My reaction:  “This is the most under-marketed seaside destination in the world.”
Call it the Miracle on the Mediterranean.  A nation founded with a commitment to a set of principles, born of willpower, ideals and imagination.  An act of creative conception on a grand scale.
The most remarkable person I met during my visit was Stef Wertheimer, a self-made billionaire industrialist with a powerful vision for peace in the Middle East.   He’s one of the people who made this modern miracle happen.
Wertheimer backs his beliefs with his own fortune, investing in businesses that promote stability by training employees of every race and creed in high-value skills like metalworking.
Wertheimer has a remarkable personal story.  He arrived in then-British Palestine in 1937 as a teenager, escaping from Nazi Germany.   He served in the British Air Force during World War II and later joined the Palmach, a secret military unit organized by the British to defend the Jewish community that later formed the core of the Israel Defense Forces during the war for independence.  So he participated in the founding of the modern Israeli state before beginning his career in industry.  And eventually he served in the Knesset.
He started his company, Iscar Metalworking Company, in his own backyard (literally) in classic startup fashion.  Iscar grew and expanded to become one of the leading producers of precision metal-cutting equipment with facilities in dozens of countries worldwide.    In 2006, Wertheimer sold his company to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, thereby becoming the wealthiest man in Israel.
At this point, you might expect someone in Wertheimer’s position to relax and enjoy a well earned retirement, perhaps in some posh locale on the French Riviera or a romantic island.
But not Stef Wertheimer.   He is a patriot, and he’s committed to working towards peace. He redoubled his efforts to incubate startup companies in the north and the desert regions of Israel, with the express purpose of training residents of Israel in high-value skills.
Here’s how Wertheimer described it to me:  if you want to build a nation, you have to train people with skills.  Real skills, not burger flipping at a fast food joint.  He’s embarked on a giant skills program, not a jobs program.   He feels strongly that jobs programs won’t work.   However, fostering skills will enable the worker to pursue their own ambition, whether it is a job, or a startup venture, or an entirely new career.
In other words, Wertheimer is committed to fostering independent talent instead of a culture of dependency.
He told me that he now has created 7 industrial parks in exurban regions of Israel, outside the dense coastal city clusters, plus one in Turkey.   Each industrial park houses a variety of companies which are committed to dealing with all employees equally, whether Jewish, Arab or Druze.   As he recounts it, when Arabs and Jews work side by side, the barriers of indifference and misunderstanding begin to dissolve.
Moreover, by focusing on generating high-value skillsets and corresponding employment opportunities in regions where wages were previously low, Wertheimer’s industrial parks contribute to regional peace and stability.   He showed me a video that illustrated how raising household income above the $6500 threshold triggers an important shift in outlook, towards prosperity and further betterment (and away from violence, despair and nihilism).
A few weeks ago, Stef was distinguished with the 2010 Oslo Business for Peace Award.  It was the first time that an Israeli was awarded this prestigious award.
Wertheimer shared his perspectives on a variety of topics with me, including:
On Regional Leadership:
when I asked him about replicating his industrial parks in neighboring nations or the West Bank, he said the biggest obstacle was leaders who “are in love with the problem”.   In other words, leaders who exploit political tension to maintain their grip on the local populace are not inclined to welcome solutions that could bring prosperity and stability.
On high technology:
Wertheimer is skeptical about companies that rely solely on the computer technology and information.  In his view, too many Israeli entrepreneurs create businesses that are designed for a quick flip to a multinational firm.   Then the entrepreneurs move out, contributing to brain drain instead of building businesses that foster skills in the region.
Wertheimer is very modest.  He doesn’t claim to have invented anything new:  he says he’s just following the path towards progress that so many other countries pursued previously.
On natural resources
During my flight to Tel Aviv, I sat next to a woman from Texas who worked for an energy company.  She was coming to Israel because natural gas had recently been discovered off the coast of Israel.   I mentioned this to Stef, and his response was characteristic:  “It would be the worst thing for the nation if Israel became an energy exporter.”   His logic is that most small countries with abundant natural resources fail to develop the entrepreneurial instinct.   He is a survivor, who thrives on the challenge of surmounting difficult circumstances.  In his view, tough times unify a nation, whereas riches tend to dissipate personal initiative and the spirit of enterprise.
Stef’s story is an inspiring tale.  During these times of financial crisis, too many industries have turned to the government for a bailout or a buyout.   Stef Wertheimer demonstrates that the opposite approach, where business leaders provider civic and social solutions, can have a powerful and lasting impact on the future wellbeing of an entire nation.
I was thrilled to make his acquaintance and to learn about his accomplishments.

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