Africa Israel is to Africa and Israel as Apple is to fruit
Lev Leviev seems almost euphoric.
"The number of meetings and the number of people I have met here in the past two days, some with no prior arrangement, is amazing," says Leviev. "I would need six months just to spend half an hour with all the participants here whom I wanted to meet."
This is the first time Leviev has attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland - a rather strange fact; after all, it's been seven years since Leviev became an international multi-millionaire of the caliber that belongs in such exclusive coteries.
Still, Leviev very quickly realized the tremendous opportunity the annual meeting in Davos can afford even a tycoon like him.
"International businessmen should really come to Davos," recommends Leviev. "It is a wonderful opportunity to become acquainted with all the funds, bankers, businessmen and politicians."
The interview with Leviev was held last Thursday morning, the third day of the World Economic Forum's conference in Davos, in the lobby of the Kongress Hotel. This small, modest hotel is not usually the site of billionaires, but during the last week of January each year you will find mostly business moguls and CEOs of giant corporations milling about, for the simple reason that it is the closest hotel to the Congress Center.
Leviev is among three or four Israeli entrepreneurs that have taken advantage of dramatic changes in the global economy in recent years to become international tycoons: Yitzhak Tshuva, Benny Steinmetz and to a certain degree the Ofer brothers, except that the latter have been on the international business scene for decades.
Not one of these men, however, made it at such a young age or as quickly as Leviev, whose most amazing achievement is Africa Israel, his only publicly traded company. Leviev purchased Africa Israel from Bank Leumi less than a decade ago, when he was about 40, at a company value of some $400 million. Today Africa Israel's shares are trading at a company value of $3.6 billion, and if one adds the dividends disbursed in recent years, the value tops the $4 billion mark.
Even so, when one watches Leviev moving frenetically between the halls at the Davos Congress Center, exchanging words with oligarchs, billionaires, bankers and fund managers, it is impossible not to discern an appetite for doing more. Indeed, a short while into our interview, Leviev drops a bombshell, as if offhandedly, but with great precision.
"Africa Israel's goal should be a market value of $7 billion by the end of the year," he says, with a quick smirk, as if expecting a look of astonishment to come over his listeners' faces.
If it were anyone but Leviev, such a pronouncement would seem presumptuous at best, and at worst a manipulative comment by the controlling shareholder of a publicly traded company attempting to boost his share value. Leviev, however, is a man who has proven himself, not only in creating tremendous worth, but also in setting targets - and hitting them. Two and a half years ago he amazed investors at the bourse when he set a seemingly unrealistic target for Africa Israel. At a press conference he called back then, when the company was worth $1 billion, he announced his goal of a market value of $5 billion within seven years.
Such numbers seemed outrageous at the time; in order to meet the target, the company's share price would have to gain 26 percent a year - a feat few companies in the world have sustained for long periods. Yet Leviev's goal quickly turned out to be realistic, and was apparently based on his assessments of the company's activities.
On the morning of our interview Africa Israel's market value stood at $3.6 billion. Evidence of the tremendous faith that Leviev's investors have in him was not slow in coming. This past Sunday, when TheMarker in Hebrew reported Leviev's new target, Africa Israel's shares surged on the stock exchange by 6-7 percent and closed the day up 8 percent, adding NIS 1.1 billion to the company's value.
The company Leviev acquired from Bank Leumi is called Africa Israel for historic reasons, and has been neither Africa nor Israel-centric for a long time. In fact, most of the company's enterprises are spread all over the globe.
Isn't it about time you changed the company's name?
"Yes, it is. The name will be changed soon. We are currently running a competition among Africa Israel's employees to choose a new name."
Africa Israel became the crown jewel of Leviev's business dealings. And as a publicly traded company, its controlling shareholder's commercial abilities are open for anybody's scrutiny. Leviev, however, has vast private dealings about which he speaks sparingly, particularly his diamond enterprises. Just recently, for example, readers of the Financial Times were greeted with a prominent front-page advertisement announcing the new luxury jewelry store Leviev opened on Old Bond Street in London.
Leviev started out in the diamond sector, where he made his first fortune, and more importantly, earned his international reputation for being the first to challenge the De Beers international diamond cartel. Diamonds, however, have long since ceased to be the only outlet for Leviev's business acumen. Real estate - the basis for huge development projects - is twice as exciting, as he puts it. During our interview Leviev revealed his far-reaching plans for Africa Israel, involving investments worldwide in real estate, energy, infrastructure and agriculture.
Leviev is planning to invest billions in the Far East, considering investments in Argentina and Brazil, and embarking on agriculture projects in Russia. More investment surprises are apparently in the pipeline. The rapid transformation of Africa Israel into an international company is presumably also the reason for the replacement of the company's CEO. Leviev recently brought in Erez Meltzer, formerly CEO of Netafim Irrigation Systems, to replace Pini Cohen, who has headed the company in the past seven years.
It is doubtful whether Meltzer really knows what awaits him. He is aware, for example, that he will be responsible for Africa Israel's entry into agriculture in Russia, but he is not yet privy to all Leviev's plans for raising the company's value to $7 billion during 2007 - plans that Meltzer will have to bring to fruition.
What did you find most interesting at Davos?
"Everything concerning the Far East, India and China. It is all very interesting and not at all simple. One of the businessmen I met here told me he has billions of dollars invested in Chinese real estate, infrastructure and BOT projects. They speak about investments of $15 billion that will be valued at five times that amount when they go public.
"I have had diamond factories in China for many years. I am planning real estate and infrastructure projects there through Africa Israel. Large investments do not frighten me, but one needs reasonable security for the investment."
Africa Israel has broad international interests. How are its enterprises in Europe, the United States and Russia?
"We are doing not too badly in Eastern Europe. We have investments worth over $1 billion. This is not enough for the Eastern European market. I expect large capital gains in the next five years, mainly in real estate, throughout Eastern European - the Baltic States, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania.
"After the hikes in real estate prices in Russia, it is hard to close deals there. It is very difficult to pay 20 times last year's prices for land. We have reserves of millions of square meters of construction in Russia and plenty of work for many years. I believe that Russia will be a huge growth engine for Africa Israel. I also believe that anyone who already has real estate in Russia will enjoy very good yields on his investments in the next two years.
"One very interesting destination is Ukraine. It is also dangerous there, though, particularly with respect to the registration of land ownership. One has to be a great expert in order not to take a fall. There are local businessmen there worth billions of dollars. They don't pay much attention to people who come with $3-5 million, like the Israelis who go there."
Do you detect any "bubble" areas in Eastern Europe?
"No. Hungary and the Czech Republic have become like the U.S. in every way. Profitability is very low there. Those places are still much more interesting than Israel, but not like Romania, which is undergoing privatization and is thriving. Another two or three years, however, and that, too, will be over."
Where is it worth investing now?
"Fund managers are talking positively about South America. I have friends who have told me about real estate investments, about companies that floated at $500 million and are now trading at $3-$4 billion. Very high growth rates are expected in Brazil and Argentina. North America is stable. One can earn 5-6 percent a year there. That is not interesting enough, however.
"Africa Israel has looked into a few deals in Argentina and Brazil, and will probably sign on one of them."
In which sectors are you planning to invest?
"In the ones we understand best: real estate, residential housing, infrastructure, oil. Russia is beginning to embark on massive infrastructure projects. They realize they cannot be dependent on just oil and natural gas. They are investing in agriculture, tourism and all the sectors the state feels are important. There are federal subsidies for agriculture projects, such as interest reimbursements on financing costs, such that these will not exceed the LIBOR by more than 2 percent.
"We are considering substantial investments in agriculture there. I am sending a large delegation to Russia, headed by Meltzer. I'm talking about flowers and greenhouses. A kilo of strawberries, for example, costs $8 in Russia. Here in Israel the price is about $2, and in Russia everything is cheaper, including labor.
"People ask me, What about Zionism? and say I should invest in Israel, but that's nonsense. Israeli companies must venture abroad, make lots of money and then come back and invest some of it in Israel. Otherwise, like most of the real estate tycoons, anyone who did not go abroad lost out. Even his principal was eroded. One has to go abroad, make money and bring it to Israel. There is not enough room here for everyone, so instead of competing with one another, it is better to spread out overseas and bring the profits home. Knowledge, too."
Based on your investment plans, you will need to update your growth target for Africa Israel, which was a market value of $5 billion by 2011.
"I'm checking that out. We have to meet the new goal of $7 billion by the end of 2007. We are examining investments in all sectors. Some say Israel is risky, because of the Iranian threat. When a company has no exposure to the Israeli market, I can invest in peace. We are looking into investments in energy, where we'd like to expand our activities. We also excel at infrastructure undertakin gs, such as roads and light rail projects. If we managed to overcome the hurdles in Israel and win, of course I feel more confident abroad."
You once said you focus only on things you do well. What happened to that philosophy?
"There are some fields one has to understand in order to enter, such as high-tech. That's not for me. People are making bundles of money from high-tech, so I have a few passive investments. If I don't understand a field, it's hard for me to get involved in it. We are in the infrastructure sector, which is high-tech in itself. Closing a financing agreement for a BOT project in Israel - one has to be a genius for that.
"It all begins and ends with management. That was lacking in Africa Israel. The management did not invest in the second and third levels. It was a big shortcoming for the company. I believe you need a Russian manager for activities in Russia, a Chinese manager in China, an Indian manager in India, and similarly in the Philippines and Africa. I do not believe in bringing in Israelis who think they are the best. We try to bring a financial officer from Israel to each country, but a manager who is a local has connections and is familiar with the mentality. In business development, too, when you have a good offer but no qualified manager, it's a problem. When decisions have to pass through a chain of command from one manager to another in a cumbersome system until they reach the top, there will be no deal. One has to be much quicker and nimbler in business."
Which area of your business is the most profitable?
"Real estate in Israel is the least profitable, and is the most profitable abroad. I sat down with a German fund that invests in Israel and with another that invests in Russia. They made 70 percent in one year. They wanted me to invest, but I wasn't interested. I prefer to see 30-40 percent and watch buildings go up where there were once only brush. When I drive on a road we have built, I feel proud. I do not want to invest in trends. I believe more in a different type of investment."
Where are the greatest risks?
"I see risks more in the diplomatic arena than in the marketplace. If Israel operates against Iran and Iran responds with missiles, I shudder to even think about what would happen in Israel. The thought of owning shares in an Israeli bank in such a situation is chilling."