Call Me: How Amos Shapira Made Cellcom's Star Shine

When Amos Shapira joined Cellcom as CEO in October 2005, he looked for a gimmick. He had no innate advantage over the chiefs of rival companies Orange and Pelephone. "All I knew about cellular phones was how to press 'send' and 'end,'" he confesses.

"Everyone has the same technology, the same devices. I looked at the surveys and thought about what would help me recruit and keep clients. I discovered that no one was complaining about network quality anymore, which had been a sore subject a few years earlier."

He realized the center of gravity had to shift to service.

Shapira chose to tell the world about his new service orientation in a typical manner: with lots of fanfare, and a small gimmick to boot. He advertised his own phone number, telling unhappy customers to call him directly.

"After five years on the job, I can no longer do that, but I took advantage of the fact that I was new and maybe naive. A basic condition for such a move is having a pretty good ability to see and analyze the battlefield," he says.

At Cellcom, this service, which received several dozen calls a day, was referred to as "Star Amos." There were guffaws within the industry, but they were tinged with admiration. Shapira's time talking to clients had its effect, marking him immediately as the industry's standard-bearer in customer service.

"He does everything we all do, but he knows how to get credit for it," one industry leader said about Shapira's move.

Looking back, Shapira says he is not sure he would do it again, but he knows he had to sell something when he first came on board as CEO.

While the gimmick was seen for what it was, it greatly improved both the quality of service at Cellcom and the public perception of the company as a service provider. Consumer surveys have reflected the results.

Shapira, however, did not stop at declarations: he let everyone in the company know that this was their primary mission - to make Cellcom the industry's number-one service provider.

Executives in charge of service at Cellcom received dozens of text messages from him each day, whenever he got a complaint from an irate customer. He exerted enormous pressure on his employees, dragging them in for meetings and repeating the mantra: We have to win at service.

Since then, this field has been institutionalized. Cellcom now has a customer service "war room" - a weekly forum of 15 executives from every branch of the company.

"You can't announce that service is your top priority and just expect it to work. If I as CEO don't head the project, it won't work. It will just be a declaration," Shapira says.

Shapira began his executive career in consumable goods, as CEO of paper goods manufacturer Hogla. He spent 27 years there, making his way up the ladder from run-of-the-mill salesman to chief executive officer. His biggest achievement there was introducing Huggies diapers into the Israeli market, beating out Procter & Gamble, which had already introduced Pampers.

This coup was possible because Kimberly Clark decided to invest in Hogla. Shapira oversaw the Israeli company's 1996 merger with the American corporation. That year, the company had operating profit of $12 million; during Shapira's last year at Hogla, 2001, it reached $27 million.

Shapira launched an aggressive campaign, determined to lead Huggies to victory over the massive Procter & Gamble in his typical way: by creating fighting spirit within every branch of the company, with the singular objective of winning.

"The basis for any business is the simple yet complex question: Why should I buy your product rather than your competitor's?" he says. "In the modern age, no company has exclusive knowledge. When companies succeed or fail, it's not because of a business model or some secret proprietary information, so it's hard to say what you did that led to success. What matters is the company spirit. The desire to win brings success, more than anything else."

Shapira has repeatedly expressed his scorn for the management buzzwords like "vision" and "strategy," not because he considers them unimportant, but because he considers everyday management to be more significant.

"Strategy is important, because the organization can't move ahead without a direction. But in everyday life, how often does a CEO need to set strategy? Not much. I'm not a bleeding heart. I'm bad in the good sense of the word. I get into the details, confirm that things are getting done. I'm very involved in what I do, and of course, I like people. You can't manage people without liking them. You can't lead a battle without loving the battle. I like the game of competition."

He still follows the management principles that him at Hogla, which include the following:

First: Quantification is necessary for improvement. "A company that does not set itself goals is like a basketball game without a scoreboard. It doesn't work. People don't like to be measured. I always tell them that I prefer not to be measured, either. But once those are the rules of the game and I am being measured, than I have to include them in the game, too."

Second: Attention to detail. "You can't go into all of the details, but at any point in time you need to go into those on your crucial path to success. I decided that service is crucial and that it should be the main issue for the company - and I got into the details in that area. When you do that, you honor the people doing the work. When you ask someone questions, it does not mean you are interfering in their work."

Third: CEO as integrator. "Usually, a unit within an organization functions quite well. The problems are between the units. You need to make sure that no single department is optimized at the expense of the entire organization."

While he does strive for teamwork and the integrating divisions, Shapira says he detests the idea of organizational harmony: "It's my job to create disharmony. It's part of the ability to lead an open discussion within the organization, as long as it's not on a personal level."

He believes that the CEO's job is not to generate solutions. "The CEO should enable his subordinates to generate solutions and work together. My task is to create an organization whose employees will want to give that extra bit."

Fourth: Commitment to the task at hand. Shapira is an all-out manager. He comes to conventions and his own office in a purple polo shirt with the Cellcom logo.

"Why should I advertise Lacoste or Ralph Lauren?" he asks. You can call him obsessive or a control freak, and he will not be offended.

"I have some of that in me," he admits, but stresses another quality he considers important for an executive - not taking yourself too seriously.

"The basic job of an executive is making plans and setting goals. But you don't really know what's going to happen, so you should not take yourself too seriously. What I said yesterday holds for yesterday. You have to assume that you cannot foretell the future.

"When I ran Hogla, which is in the paper industry, we had strategic discussions about a 'paperless office.' We were tremendously anxious about it. When we brought the first diaper-manufacturing machine to Israel, we thought it would work a single shift. But we kept having to buy more and more machines.

"The same with cellular phones. Who could have predicted their penetration? Who could anticipate the text-message revolution?"

After Holga, Shapira moved to El Al. He came in when the government-owned company was in crisis, amid the second intifada, and left for Cellcom when the Borovich family purchased El Al from the state.

At Cellcom, Shapira found a saturated industry and a market well-divided between three players. This market is very uncompetitive compared to the others in which he has worked, and is not vulnerable to world economic crises.

But it is precisely in such an industry that management can make the difference. When Shapira started as CEO, Cellcom's public image was trailing that of the industry's star, Partner. Shapira has closed the gap and jumped ahead of competitors on several fronts - both in service, and in terms of of revenue and profitability.

Shapira has introduced a plethora of reporting mechanisms into Cellcom's day-to-day operations. Almost 400 executives produce a short monthly report about whether goals were met. Shapira reads samples of the reports (and adds comments and questions), but his goal is to have executives be accountable to themselves.

He also instituted an internal Web site that lets employees send anonymous questions to the management and get a response within within 72 hours.

"If we tell employees that replying quickly to customers is important, we also need to implement this with the workers themselves," he says.

But how does being a top executive affect personal integrity? After all, the business world presents executives with numerous dilemmas and conflicts, requiring them to navigate between the need to perform and the temptation to cut corners, find shortcuts and overlook ethical obstacles.

Shapira ("I'm half Thessalonian") is upset by the question.

"The only thing I oversee at Cellcom, even by terrorizing, is transparency and credibility with customers. I will send an executive home over dishonesty, not over failing to meet a sales goal."

And what about the dangers of cellular technology and radiation?

"If I had proof that the device were dangerous, I would either do something about it, or I would quit," Shapira says.