Haim Shani
Haim Shani Photo by Emil Salman
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When Haim Shani, president and CEO of NICE Systems, heard a voicemail message that the finance minister wanted to meet with him, he thought it was a prank. In his 28 years in the business sector, he'd met a minister exactly once, and he'd never met any Knesset members at all. In short, he had absolutely nothing to do with the public sector.

That was nothing unusual. Most of Israel's technology talent lives in a bubble. They don't need to cuddle with politicians: They already play in the big leagues.

Anyway, Shani, 53 and a father of two, did call Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz back, and even accepted his proposal - that he abandon his successful career and join the Finance Ministry as director-general.

In his nine years at the helm, he transformed NICE from a small company in crisis to a market leader. He began with revenues of $100 million a year, a market capitalization of $100 million and 700 employees at the start of the decade. NICE today is a giant, generating sales of $600 million a year. Its market cap is $2 billion and it has 2,700 employees.

Yet Shani left all that, his seven-digit salary, and a few other perks to serve his country. After ensuring he had a worthy successor, Zeev Bregman (formerly of Comverse ), Shani took over the management of the toughest ministry in Israel, a ministry involved in just about everything that happens in the economy, sometimes too involved.

As they say, a strong Finance Ministry is bad, but a weak one is worse. Shani's mandate is to keep the ministry strong.

Announcements from Ra'anana

His biggest advantage is that he isn't a classic "treasury whippersnapper" - he knows the real world, not only the theories studied in business school. He knows the right questions to ask. He knows the pretenses and the vested interests. Mainly, he doesn't need a cushy job offer from some well-padded tycoon. He's made his fortune and now he can settle down and contribute to the nation and his children's future.

Do not cynically dismiss his Zionism. Shani is one of the few executives on Wall Street, where NICE was issued, who made sure that the letterhead on his company's announcements to the stock market stated "Ra'anana, Israel," even when Israel was deep in the doghouse. "My grandparents didn't leave Russia for me to publish announcements from St. Louis," he once said at a meeting at NICE.

At the treasury, Shani sees his role as director-general as having three facets.

One is the classic role of macroeconomic and budgetary management, plus resolving routine issues.

The second is to be the ministry's "integrator," ensuring that the burning issues of the day are seen from the broadest perspective.

The third is unique to Shani: to promote high-tech with all his might. This has also earned him the most biting criticism.

He knew that he could have the greatest influence, in the shortest period of time, in the area he knows best. Shani hails from high-tech. Why the criticism? Detractors argue that he's helping a sector that needs no help, where employees live relatively well. High-tech consists of "his friends," they gripe.

Unflustered by the complaints, Shani wants to strengthen this already strong industry even more, to help it contend with the threats it faces, which are not small.

He sees signs that Israeli high-tech is eroding and says that with new priorities, tax breaks, some financial assistance and legislative amendments, he can help stop the erosion and make Israeli high-tech more competitive against other countries coming to the fore. Moreover, the advance of high-tech helps satellite industries, improving the economy as a whole and creating more jobs, he argues. He points out that he is responsible for 15% of Israel's GDP and 40% of its exports.

He's also helping low-tech industry by revising the outdated Investment Encouragement Law, again to give Israel a competitive edge against the rest of the world. Another drive is to reduce bureaucracy for the sake of smaller businesses, and to get Israel to comply with the emission caps to which it has committed.

Can he really help narrow the gaps between Israel's two economies? The strong one is characterized by high-tech, R&D, quality human capital and an advanced consumption culture. The weak one includes the country's outlying areas, communities with huge unemployment (Haredim and Israeli Arabs ), deteriorating education, a torpid public economy, backward infrastructure and a diminishing competitive advantage compared with China and India.

He's been nine months on the job, so it's early days. But judging by the subjects he's chosen to tackle, the discussions he holds, the legislative proposals he's involved in and the moves he's leading, Haim Shani looks like he'll be one of those government officials who leaves his mark. Perhaps his success will lead more good people to move from business to public service, for the greater good of all.