The steady hand behind the TASE

She’s been a guiding force at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange for 25 years, but Ester Levanon shows no sign of stopping as the Israeli exchange goes from strength to strength. Photo courtesy of TASE Ester Levanon, CEO of the …

She’s been a guiding force at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange for 25 years, but Ester Levanon shows no sign of stopping as the Israeli exchange goes from strength to strength.

TASE CEO Ester Levanon

Photo courtesy of TASE
Ester Levanon, CEO of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange (TASE) and Sandy Frucher, vice chairman of NASDAQ ringing the NASDAQ Stock Market Opening Bell last December.

Under the steady hand of CEO Ester Levanon, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange has not only ridden the waves of war and worldwide economic instability, but has actually thrived.

At a January press conference, her first held in English for the foreign press, Levanon confidently declared 2010 to be “a very good year” for TASE.

As an information technology specialist, Levanon transitioned Israel’s only public exchange to fully computerized trading. Now in her 25th year at TASE, she is still innovating. Her newest project is a multifaceted plan to position TASE as an international hub for tech companies.

Levanon was born in Petah Tikva about two years before her father was killed in the 1948 War of Independence. When Levanon was six, her paternal grandfather told her that he would finance her studies when she was ready to go to university.

“He did not say ‘if;’ he said ‘when.’ Thinking back, I realize I was always encouraged to go and do things in life,” says Levanon.

Childhood dreams of a Nobel Prize

Young Levanon dreamed of being just like French scientist Marie Curie, she tells ISRAEL21c. “I wanted to be a physicist and win the Nobel Prize.”

After marrying fellow Hebrew University physics student Ishay Levanon at the age of 20, she earned her master’s degree in mathematics, completed an advanced management program at Harvard Business School, did graduate work at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and then assisted in the environmental science department at Tel Aviv University.

Here, she discovered computers.

“I decided that was what I wanted to do, and I left to work for a software house in 1970,” she relates. “I had no experience — all my formal IT education was one week learning Fortran — but they liked that I had a master’s in math.”

In late 1973, Levanon began consulting for the Israel Security Agency, and two years later accepted an offer to build and run its in-house IT operation.

“I took the job although I had no clue how to set up the department,” she recalls. Nine years later, she came to TASE as vice president for IT and operations. “I automated everything here, so they had no choice but to make me executive vice president,” she relates with a smile.

“For a stock exchange, IT is the most important thing,” she continues. “Today, more than 50 percent of our employees are in IT.” After a decade as deputy CEO, Levanon became CEO about four and a half years ago.

A thriving exchange

Her tenure has not been without its challenges, but she sees each one as a positive test of the exchange’s mettle.

“On the first day of the July 2006 Lebanon war, the market dropped eight percent, and I thought foreign investors would pull out,” she recalls. “But they didn’t. When the war ended in mid-August, our index was higher than it had been before. … The country is built to deal with wars the way Japan is built to deal with earthquakes.”

On May 26, last year, the day TASE was promoted to MSCI — the major organization of developed (as opposed to emerging) markets in 23 countries — it saw a record turnover of $4.4 billion. “In dollar terms, we did better than NASDAQ in 2010,” Levanon says.

In keeping with her focus on boosting technology, she arranged a fourth-quarter conference with NASDAQ to introduce Israeli biomed firms to investors. “Most high-techs are too small and not interesting enough for analysts, so they get lost on both exchanges,” she explains.

TASE is sponsoring a Tel Aviv University course to train analysts in the biomed sector, and has identified many Israeli technology companies with IPO potential. The number of TASE-traded tech companies grew from 102 at the start of 2010 to 144 by December.

Women at work

Levanon points out that four of the seven top TASE managers are female. Women have served as CEOs of national stock exchanges in England, Ireland, Norway, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Nigeria. Still, this is one grandmother with a particularly noteworthy position in Israel’s executive arena.

While waiting to board a flight recently at the Eilat airport, she found herself in the company of retired Supreme Court justice Dahlia Dorner and Channel 2 News economics correspondent Keren Marciano. The three women began chatting. “What did we discuss? Raising children. And we discovered that all three of us have two boys, 20 months apart.”

Her eldest – father of the eight- and four-year-old grandchildren whose photos she proudly shares with ISRAEL21c following the press conference — works in IT at Israel Discount Bank, while the younger, now nearly 36, is in high-tech. Levanon’s husband is a physicist.

The classical music aficionada enjoys world travel and has no plans for retirement. “There is so much work to be done here and it’s so interesting,” she said. “I was asked to commit to three years and here I am, 25 years later.”

About Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.