Bottom shekel / Lev Leviev, then and now
Before the global crisis unfolded, Lev Leviev was on top of the world. The company he rules, Africa Israel Investments, was worth billions of dollars.
Before the global crisis unfolded, Lev Leviev was on top of the world. The company he rules, Africa Israel Investments, was worth billions of dollars. Asked for his motto in business, the Israeli-Russian tycoon answered: Foresight.
"The wise man sees ahead," he said. "The trick is to make difficult decisions and put a lot of money into them. That's what we did in New York after the collapse of the Twin Towers in September 2001. Entrepreneurs have to identify the potential in markets and make decisions in real time."
But Leviev didn't see what was coming. In the years after that terror attack in New York, he continued to pour billions into the Big Apple, and into many other parts of the world. Even as prices continued to rise, he continued to buy.
The business sense that had helped him so much in the past failed to foresee one of the worst economic crises in living memory.
The blow that Leviev took in New York was just too heavy. He bought properties at top price, using enormous loans. Today, assets he bought for $4 billion are worth less than half that amount, somewhere between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.
Africa Israel found itself exposed to all the epicenters of the crisis. It has enormous exposure to property markets in both eastern Europe and the United States, and especially in Russia.
Moreover, it borrowed huge sums, which began to weigh on it. Its ratio between balance sheet and shareholders equity was 6.5, meaning that for every shekel it had in equity, it had borrowed NIS 5.50. Thus as property prices fell, its equity took a hit.
That is also why Africa Israel suffered such extreme losses: almost NIS 5 billion in the third and fourth quarters of 2008, and another NIS 1.4 billion in the second quarter of 2009.
Leviev had been one of greatest, and most fascinating, success stories in Israel's business scene. But the crisis found him unprepared. He coped with previous crises courageously and well. But this one caused him mortal damage, putting his control over both his private and his public companies in question.
Africa Israel won't regain its status of the boom years. Leviev won't either. He still believes he will come out of this crisis on top, and he may. But he won't be as rich as he once was. And his confidence probably won't be the same, either.