When billionaire American investor, Warren Buffett stepped out of his private jet at Israeli blades maker Iscar Metalworking last week, it was his first sight of the company his insurance and investment firm, Berkshire Hathaway had purchased for $4 billion just a few months earlier.
A whirlwind tour later, and Buffett – nicknamed the Oracle of Omaha – announced to reporters that he was “deliriously happy” with his Galilee purchase, calling it Berkshire Hathaway’s “pride and joy”.
“We have seen thousands of businesses over the years, but we have never seen a company that we admire more than Iscar. It’s a remarkable achievement, a combination of brains, talent and imagination,” he remarked enthusiastically.
“This is a company that started with absolutely nothing and… against the odds… has now become a valued, trusted, important supplier to virtually every major industrial company in the world. We tip our hats to the people that enabled this to be done. We have here remarkable people doing remarkable things.”
Buffett, 76, who was on his first brief 36-hour visit to Israel, admitted that he was now open to making other Israeli acquisitions, but said that it would be difficult to find a business as good as Iscar anywhere in the world. “If we could find a business 50% as good as Iscar, we would be happy,” he said.
Iscar’s story began in 1952 when Stef Wertheimer, a young and ambitious entrepreneur who fled with his family from Germany to Israel in 1937 founded a small metal cutting tools factory in Nahariya.
Today Iscar is the second largest metalworking tools manufacturer in the world with subsidiaries in 60 countries, and factories in Europe, Asia and the Americas. The company, which employs 6,000 people worldwide, specializes in precision tools for the automotive, aerospace and die-and-mold industries and annual revenues are thought to be about $1.4 billion.
In 1982, Wertheimer set up the Tefen Industrial Park, which includes everything from transportation to cultural and educational facilities, with Iscar as its flagship company.
In recent years, Stef Wertheimer, who is now 80, has handed the reigns of Iscar to his son Eitan and focused instead on using his business success to promote peace in the Middle East through industrial parks modeled on Tefen. Each of his four parks has an integrated Israeli and Arab workforce.
“Industry is a tool to make peace by creating jobs,” said Wertheimer during Buffett’s visit.
Buffett’s interest in Iscar was piqued in October last year when he received a letter from Wertheimer’s son, Eitan, asking whether Berkshire Hathaway might be interested in purchasing Iscar.
“I didn’t know anything about Iscar before, but the story Eitan told in his very brief letter leapt off the page,” said Buffett, who is the second richest man in the world after Bill Gates, and considered by many as the world’s greatest stock market investor.
The deal was signed just seven months later. Berkshire Hathaway paid $4 billion for an 80% stake in the company, leaving 20% in the hands of the Wertheimer family.
At the end of his Iscar tour, Buffett, who was accompanied by his partner at Berkshire Hathaway, Charles Munger, 82, said that he was very impressed by Iscar and the Tefen Industrial Park, calling them miracles.
“Iscar is a model and Charlie and I are enormous believers in models,” he said. “Iscar and Tefen park should become beacons to people throughout the world of what can be done in industry and what can be done with human beings… it should be replicated and copied… you can’t have a better model.”
“This is one of the world’s great companies,” Mungus agreed. “Created a short time ago, in a country with many troubles, it’s an achievement with few parallels in the history of business. People can learn from it.”
Iscar and Tefen’s story is under-appreciated, Buffett added. “I think the world should learn more about what has happened here in this remote place. It’s an example of what can be done by a single man who has as a goal, Arabs and Jews working together.”
He also encouraged journalists to focus on this story and announced that he plans to highlight Iscar in Berkshire Hathaway’s next annual meeting.
“This purchase will bring more visibility to Iscar,” he said. “People are going to be following Iscar this year, next year, and over the next five to 10 years, who wouldn’t have had their eyes on it before now. I think this will also be good for Israel.”
This is Berkshire Hathaway’s first investment in Israel, and its first major purchase of a company outside the US. While Buffett admits that he usually waits for people to approach him, he added that he hopes that over the next 12 months he will hear from other Israeli entrepreneurs.
“This is a great place to find brains… there’s a wealth of talent here. Imagine a city of seven million people in the US with this kind of talent,” he said. “People who have business should get in touch with us. If it’s outside the field of what we are doing we require a fairly good-sized company. If it’s within our field, it can be smaller. I would love to hear about new things. I don’t do prospecting, but I do respond very quickly.”
Tefen stands close to the Lebanese border, and during the recent war Iscar was forced to shut down its main plant for several days until a cease-fire was declared on August 14. During the month long conflict, more than 4,000 Katyusha rockets landed in the north of Israel. Despite this, Buffett said he had no second thoughts about purchasing Iscar.
“Israel is no more dangerous than the US,” he said. “There was a short time during the war when it really was dangerous here, but we live in a dangerous world.
“There can be things that happen month to month in any of our businesses,” he added. “If we buy into an Israeli company we run the risk of seeing headlines from time to time, but Iscar is going to be here forever, Berkshire Hathaway is going to be here forever and so is Israel and the United States.”
Buffett stressed that he intends to let the company’s present management, led by chairman Eitan Wertheimer, and president Jacob Harpaz continue running the business as usual. “This is an organization of innovation, every month things happen. The same people who made very good things happen in the first place, will be in charge of things in the future. We will leave them to keep doing what they have been doing.”
On his short trip, Buffett also met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israeli business leaders. Olmert thanked Buffett for the major investment and for the confidence in the Israeli economy, and encouraged him to invest in additional projects in Israel.
Olmert also praised Stef Wertheimer and noted that he had set a precedent by establishing a project such as the Tefen Industrial Park without government involvement.
“Stef is not an easy man but he is the most honest man that you will meet; mainly, he is a man with vision,” the Prime Minister told Buffett.
So what do the Wertheimer’s plan to do with the money raised from the sale of Iscar?
“Build industrial parks,” says Stef, with a laugh.
“Fund new industry,” adds his son. “Industry is where we come from, what we love and what we feel good at doing.”