Greed has gotten a bad rap in recent days. It has even been blamed for the fall of Lev Leviev - a baseless charge.
Greed is not to blame - it's like sex. Without humankind's craving for sex, the human race would cease to exist. But that doesn't mean you should become a sex addict.
So it goes with greed - it's an essential ingredient in any economy, without which the game couldn't even be played. Without the desire to amass more wealth, power and property, people wouldn't work so hard, launch so many enterprises or invest so much in their careers. The result would be a backward, stagnant economy, with a retreating standard of living.
But even greed must not be overblown. We must not lose our sense of proportion, behave too arrogantly or take risks that are too great, because we then start believing that we are all Midas and everything we touch turns to gold. That is the precise moment at which one falls from the heights to the pits, and that's what happened to Leviev.
Leviev centralized power at Africa Israel. Despite his position as chairman and not CEO, he effectively ran the company. Nothing moved without his assent. He decided what to acquire and how to develop, following intuition instead of orderly economic considerations. And once he decided, it was impossible to stop him, as he is a gambler by nature.
Africa Israel had no strategy. It had only one plan of action - to buy, buy and buy again. If possible, at a good price, and if not, at a high one. The important thing was to buy.
At the beginning of the decade it was a successful mode of operation, as virtually the entire world was experiencing growth - Russia was recovering from the failings of Communism, and in Manhattan buildings were sold for cheap following the shock of the September 11 tragedy. Leviev bought everything - assets in Russia, buildings in Manhattan, plots in Las Vegas and Miami, and shopping centers in Romania, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Latvia.
He also wanted a share of the capital markets. When Bank Leumi put its Psagot investment firm up for sale in late 2006 (for an inflated price), Leviev made an offer. To his good fortune, the bank preferred another buyer.
Leviev didn't know how to stop. In 2007, when the bubble had already grown large and threatening, he continued his crazed campaign of acquisition in the United States, earning the title of the richest man in Israel - richer than Shari Arison, richer than Stef Wertheimer.
The tremendous wealth and sycophancy that surrounded Leviev made him lose all perspective. He started believing the legends spun around him, as if he indeed had the golden touch. The peak of his conceit came in the eye-popping, gaudy property he purchased in London for $70 million, and the executive jet he bought for $46 million.
It all came in direct contradiction to what he often said of himself - "I behave modestly."
Leviev's fall was inevitable. Even if the subprime crisis had not hit in 2007 and Lehman Brothers not gone bankrupt the year after, his fall would have come eventually, whether in one year or two. After all, it is impossible for real estate prices to rise endlessly, since the property market is like a pendulum - sometimes it's up and sometimes down. Leviev utterly ignored the downswing.
Will his arrogance and business mistakes make him lose Africa Israel entirely? Will the company come under the ownership of creditors? It's enough that one of the creditors demand that the company be dismantled, and the whole thing will come into the hands of a court. Leviev would then come out of the whole story with his head buried in his hands, without the company he once ran.
But there is also the possibility that Leviev will be able to reach a debt agreement, by which each of the sides would relinquish something in order to give the company time to recover, and so that the assets in Manhattan could even stage a turnaround and start to rise in value.
In that case, it would not be enough for Leviev to bring in his own money "from home." He would have to prove that he recognizes his mistakes and his arrogance, and that he will from now on allow Africa Israel's management to handle its affairs, without him paralyzing the company or constantly interfering in its business.
If Leviev is able to reach an agreement, we won't demand that he abandon his greed. It is the strongest drive in the world of business, entrepreneurship and growth. We will only ask him that this time he keep it in proportion.
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