'Iscar Is a Business Model for the U.S.'

Warren Buffett already knows what he'll be talking about at the next annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders' meeting: Iscar and Tefen as a business model for the entire world, especially the United States. He already views Iscar as one of the most successful companies in the world, and one can infer from his comments that he expects it to be the jewel in his crown of investments within five or ten years.

Buffett and his partner Charlie Munger needed only one meeting with Iscar employees and a one-hour tour of the Tefen plant yesterday to be satisfied that paying $4 billion for 80 percent of the company's shares was the right thing to do. They are so convinced of the rightness of their decision that they are willing to enter additional partnerships in Israel and elsewhere without seeing the future bride up close.

"My partner Charlie and I had the opportunity to see magic with our own eyes during our visit to Iscar," Buffett said yesterday. "We've seen thousands of companies and have never seen such a combination of enormous achievement, power, talent and imagination as we saw at Iscar, a company that grew out of nothing to become a supplier to international companies," Buffett said.

"We visited the Tefen Industrial Park developed by Stef Wertheimer," Buffett continued, "and I believe the world should show more interest in it, because it's an example of what can be done to bring Arabs and Jews closer together, by developing something together, by creating a situation where both sides have something to lose," Buffett said.

"That's the model, and Charlie and I believe in models. Iscar, and Stef Wertheimer in particular, should teach this throughout the world."

Eyeing other targets

Regarding additional investments in Israel, Buffett said Berkshire Hathaway is looking for other Israeli companies but has not been contacted by any since the Iscar acquisition. "There aren't many like Iscar, but we'd be happy to invest in an Israeli company that was even half of Iscar."

Munger added that their investment in Iscar should serve as a signal for additional foreign capital to come into Israel. "Foreign capital must be thinking about such investments," he said. "True, the risks here are higher, but there are people here who can't afford to fail. They work harder, and outside money raises their ambition," Munger said.

The geopolitical situation does not play a major role in Buffett's investment decisions. He says that during the Lebanon war this summer he never once thought that his purchase of Iscar might have been a mistake. "Iscar will be here forever, Berkshire Hathaway will be here forever, and both Israel and the U.S. will be here forever," Buffett asserted.

Buffett wants Iscar to continue doing what it has been doing for the past 30 years. He says he intends to pay more attention to the company than to his other acquisitions, and believes that in the medium-term it will represent an example and model for Berkshire's investments.

Eitan Wertheimer, Iscar's CEO, is focusing on not disappointing his new stockholder.

"I have more responsibility because I have more shareholders," Wertheimer said. "Iscar is the pilot for Berkshire's first foreign investment. That is a very big responsibility and we all feel that we must do our very best."

Wertheimer said the money from the sale to Buffett will be used to build additional industrial parks in the Galilee. "There are a lot of empty mountaintops here," he said.

Stef Wertheimer, Eitan's father, who established Iscar and the Tefen Industrial Park, afforded a tiny glimpse into his greater vision: "You can all imagine what it will be like here when there are another 20 or 30 industrial parks like this, what that will do to unemployment. It isn't only industry. Industry provides the means for peace by creating employment. Today we are on the map thanks to Iscar and Tefen."

Do what you love

Buffett was asked for tips on how to make the first million, but he had no answer. Stef Wertheimer came to his aid, telling the questioner, "Do what you love - do it well and you'll succeed." Buffett agreed. "Stef is right. I enjoy what I'm doing very much. If you do what you really want to do, that's what will get you going."

Munger brought Mozart into the conversation: "They say that a 21-year-old came to Mozart and told him he wanted to compose symphonies. Mozart told the man he was too young. 'But you were writing symphonies when you were ten,' the man responded. Mozart retorted: 'That's true, but I didn't ask anyone how to do it.'"

Buffett and Wertheimer were also asked about the link between money and happiness. "Most people think that if they have more money they'll be happier. Is that true?," they were asked. Eitan Wertheimer gave a resounding "Yes," but then tempered his response slightly: "Someone can be as rich as Croesus without being happy."

Buffett pointed out that despite having enough money to buy whatever he wants, he has not bought a new house. (He has famously remained in the same home he bought three decades ago for $31,500.) "I'm not a house trader, my memories are in my old house. I like my neighbors and the neighborhood, and I have no desire to do something I don't want to do just because I have money."