Arison Investments and Visions

No question about it, Shari Arison has been changing a lot in the last few years.

Shari Arison, the wealthiest woman in Israel, was standing at the entrance to an Einat Sarouf concert in Caesarea, waiting to be allowed in. She stood in line just like the rest of the crowd. The controlling shareholder of Arison Holdings and Bank Hapoalim wore a short denim skirt and a flowered shirt, waiting for the gates to open.

Then she was recognized. All at once she became the center of attention. The women crowded around her, complimenting her on how she looked in the documentary about her on Channel 10 a few days earlier.

Arison smiled, hugged and thanked, and for 40 minutes or so, never ceased to connect with the people surrounding her, waiting like her for the show.

"That's Shari. Hungry for the love of the people," a friend of hers said later. "Maybe she'll want to run for the premiership one day."

No question about it, Shari Arison has been changing a lot in the last few years. Once she kept to the sidelines and was associated mainly with philanthrophy through the foundation named after her deceased father, Ted Arison. Now she stands tall, at center stage. Associates say she's set herself a mission: to become a legitimate businesswoman, not just "the billionaire heiress." Ofra Strauss, another heiress who made herself a real name in business, is often mentioned as a role model.

Her quest for independence involves distancing herself from anybody trying to control her. Shlomo Nehama was first to be dumped, from the chairmanship of Bank Hapoalim. Rani Rahav, friend and public relations manager, was next. Iris Dror, partner, was sent packing after she announced that she makes Arison's decisions.

Arison is a creature of contradictions. She talks and writes of peace and love, but her ousters are sudden and brutal. She wants to control, yet allows every guru of the moment to lead her. She wants to be a "real businesswoman" but the deals she's done, such as buying out her American partners in Bank Hapoalim, were not well priced, and she borrowed about $1 billion to carry out the deal even though she had the money herself.

She also wants to do good, and at some of her companies that spirit filters down. For instance, Housing & Construction has adopted a "green strategy" and is now negotiating to buy solar-power systems company Solel. Her social messages are also affecting Bank Hapoalim, which does quite a lot of social activities.

Some say that her desire to do good was what lay behind her support for Bank Hapoalim chairman Danny Dankner and her confrontation with the Bank of Israel, which demanded she fire him. Seemingly forgetting that the prestigious regulator was the one safeguarding the stability of her bank, she set out to smear the Bank of Israel.

Did she gain or lose from the whole affair? Time will tell. What's sure is that despite her pointless war followed by an inevitable loss, she earned the image of a woman who stands by her opinions, a fighter for justice.

On the flip side, not a few in the business community wonder about her judgment.

Her ability to lead and her business instincts will continue to be tested in the years to come. Her book, "Birth," aroused not a few sniggers in the media and the business circles to which she longs to belong. In an interview with the Washington Post, Arison claimed there was no contradiction between her powers of prediction and business. Even the Post writer remained unconvinced. While describing the candles and dried flowers in her office, he wondered how a bank belonging to a woman who can see the future lost money in the crisis.

One person still standing by her side is Efrat Peled, an accountant whom Arison raised on high to head her flagship company, Arison Investments. Peled won the war against Iris Dror, whose dismissal left Peled the closest woman to Arison in business. Time will tell whether that's a good place to be. Others who were there have been dumped. Also, some in Arison's circle wonder whether during the Hapoalim affair, Peled was protecting Arison or her good friend Danny Dankner.

Perhaps to Peled's credit, unlike Dror and Rani Rahav, she isn't part of Arison's social circle. She doesn't go to parties with her, or to community sing-alongs at the Genky Club in Tel Aviv. In general, people who come to Einat Sarouf's sing-along evenings say Arison doesn't have a fixed entourage anymore. Every time she comes, there are different people tagging along.