Barlev and Vectop Are Waiting for the IAF

Amnon Barzilai
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Amnon Barzilai

Vectop is currently waiting for a decision that will have a dramatic effect on the future of the company's operations. Colonel (Res.) Omer Barlev, Vectop's president, says everything is ready for a giant leap forward.

Vectop, located in the Rosh Ha'ayin industrial park, was founded in 1994 as a start-up for the development of unique products in the fields of military optics and video and image processing. The company's future is now dependent to a great extent on a decision by the Israel Air Force (IAF) to purchase the avionics system developed by Vectop for the F-16 (Barak) for debriefing and recreating aerial battles (VDS-90).

At a first glance, the tender, which is worth about $4 million, does not seem very impressive, especially to companies that roll over hundreds of millions of dollars. But a tender like this and the development of a unique avionics product is considered a precursor to sales on the international market. Barlev notes that there are about 1,500 Barak model F-16s in air forces around the world, so the sky's the limit.

If Vectop wins the tender, it will be the third big step forward for the company in the past four years. The first was when Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) recognized the company's potential in 1998 and bought 25 percent of its shares. Then, in 2000, Vectop signed a number of lucrative contracts with the air forces of India, Turkey and Brazil for the sale of cameras mounted on pilots' helmets.

One of Vectop's developments, tiny night-vision cameras installed in the pilots' goggles, will soon be produced by the American company, ITT. Backed by hopes of a positive decision by the IAF, Barlev is considering cooperative ventures with international companies.

"We are constantly sending out feelers," says Barlev. "We have no illusions of breaking into world marketing channels and our products don't have to bear our name to satisfy our egos. On the contrary, the name Israel often bothers the international market."

Barlev, 48, is a former officer in the Sayeret Matkal, the General Staff's elite special-operations force, and took part in some of the army's most important historic operations, including the rescue at Entebbe in 1976. Following his army service, he studied agriculture, but returned to extended reserve duty with his unit during the Lebanon War (1982) and led the team that rescued the hostages of bus 300 in 1984.

At the request of Ehud Barak, he spent three more years in the army as commander of the Sayeret. When this tour of duty was over, he was replaced by Moshe Ya'alon, the current chief of staff.

Barlev continued his academic studies after his discharge from the army, completing a master's degree in international relations and strategy. His master's thesis on security arrangements on the Golan Heights led to his appointment as vice-president of operations at ICTS, which handles the security and surveillance of airports in France. After relocating for two years, Barlev was summoned back to the army in 1992 by then chief of staff Ehud Barak and was appointed commander of the Beka Division. A year later, when the Oslo Accords were signed, his expertise on border arrangements was remembered and he joined the military committee to the negotiations with the Palestinians. Barlev was called on to formulate the Israeli concept of security in the West Bank.

In 1994 he left the army again - this time, for good. "I was torn between two options," he recalls, "middle management in a big company or being No. 1 in something small, somewhere where I could learn and express myself."

He chose the second option. "It fit in with my personal vision - managing a small industrial technology company."

Because the people who founded the company and work there have such similar backgrounds and goals, Barlev says, "I refer to Vectop as a `goal-oriented homogeneous group.'"

Ran Carmeli, who founded the company in 1994, served in the intelligence branch of the army and won an Israel Security Award for a classified military system he developed.

Barlev joined Vectop in 1996, on the heels of two other Sayeret veterans, Moshe Rines and Hanan Gilutz, who then recruited two more former Sayeret officers who today serve as the company's head of development and development engineer. Vectop's CEO, Colonel (Res.) Yoav Hirsh, served as a paratrooper.

Vectop's organizational strategy is for the company to develop products and then have them manufactured by subcontractors, but to keep the marketing in its own hands. For this purpose, Vectop recruited five former air force pilots. "This [gives us] a double advantage," explains Barlev. "Pilots are the best at understanding technology and the minute an overseas customer meets with a marketer who is also an Israeli pilot, we get full attention."

Vectop has 30 employees, some of whom are involved in supervising subcontractors, although most are engineers - some from the Commonwealth of Independent States and others who are veterans of technology or military intelligence units of the Israel Defense Forces.

One product developed by Vectop is a rear-mounted camera for the Merkava Mk 4 tank. The development began as a contest with El-Op, a subsidiary of Elbit Systems. "We concluded that it was better to join forces and submit a combined proposal than to compete," says Barlev.

The idea worked, and El-Op developed the optical component, while Vectop developed the digital recording system that is attached to the camera. The system includes a camera that can be used at night and is mounted on a tank or a pilot's helmet, together with a storage and retrieval system that weighs less than two kilograms. "The unforeseen result was that today, all the video data storage (VDS) systems in the IDF's training tanks, Merkava tanks and Magach (M-60) tanks were developed by Vectop," Barlev says.

Vectop's products are sometimes marketed directly to governments and defense ministries or big subcontractors. "IAI, for example, is an excellent partner," says Barlev. "They help us with their tenders and in marketing."

Vectop's technological breakthroughs have bolstered the company's sales, which have doubled in each of the past three years, reaching $10 million in 2001. "We are a profitable company," says Barlev. "In the past 2-3 years, profits have grown almost as much as sales.

On the eve of the Six-Day War, Barlev's father coined the phrase, "short, swift and elegant." In order to survive in today's market, Barlev's motto for product development is "fast, cheap and competitive."

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