Taking Stock / The Best Company to Work for in Israel Is American

It's Intel, while many Israeli firms on the list are monopolies or state-owned.

Wegmans Food Markets has 1,500 available jobs. The company is looking for keen people from the food industry with wide experience, creative ideas and a desire to constantly learn.

Google is offering 1,000 jobs. It wants people who like to solve complicated problems, use technology and are committed to the company.

Qualcomm has 617 positions on offer. It's looking for people who love technology and innovation. Cisco has 596 jobs and wants people who cooperate and are good in teams.

The U.S. economy is still licking its wounds from the financial crisis, but there are 87,000 jobs to be had at 22 big and little companies that are among Fortune Magazine's 50 companies elected best to work for.

In Israel, the state of the economy is ostensibly much better. We've spent the last year obsessively applauding its performance. Israel's admittance to the OECD was the opening shot of gala festivities in the economy's honor.

But if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz take a break from the fete and compare the list of the best 50 companies to work for in Israel with the best 50 American companies, they'd learn something much more fundamental about the Israeli economy, something that statistics on debt, GDP and unemployment don't teach.

The press runs any number of lists, but the best 50 companies to work for are the clearest reflection of the structure of Israel's economy, for better, and mainly, for worse.

The list is topped by an American company, Intel, which maintains large R&D centers in Israel. The half-full cup is that the chipmaker still finds competitive advantages in Israeli manpower and has thousands of employees here. The half-empty cup is that for all Israel's economic development, its best employer is an American company.

After Intel, the list takes a depressing turn. Almost all the rest at the top are monopolies, cartels and government companies. Look deeper and you'll see that even the privately held ones on the list have monopolistic bents.

The secret of success

Does it matter what kind of companies are on the list?

It does. Most of the American companies chosen as best employers operate in competitive markets. Their success depends on good management, innovation, creativity and customer service. They don't have a franchise from the state or a piece of a cartel. Their workers and corporate culture are the secret of their success.

That isn't so for the top Israeli employers. Here success starts with the structure of the market, the absence of competition and choices for consumers, and feeble regulation. Worker satisfaction at some of these companies is sometimes the mirror image of the bitterness of the clients (at the monopolies ) or the shareholders (at the government companies ).

A quarter-century after the great economic reforms in Israel, the list of the best 50 companies to work for should be different. We need a new mindset, a new paradigm, to make Israel's economy more innovative, equitable and competitive.

About half the best companies to work for in Israel do not innovate. They are not creative and do not offer equitable employment opportunities, or exciting ones. They are ruled by cartelism, cronyism and nepotism. Some are monopolies by virtue of their sheer size and market share. Some are monopolies through control of distribution channels. Some are cartels because they control infrastructure and due to anemic regulation.

American capitalism has its ills: inequality, poverty, a bad health care system and control by interest groups over most decisions in Washington. But alongside these ills, it has much to teach us Israelis about entrepreneurship, innovation and competition.

The American list has hardly any monopolies or cartels. Most are companies that had to fight over the consumer's wallet. To compete, they needed the keenest workers, the best organizational culture.

Take W.L. Gore and Associates, which sells Gore-Tex ski clothing made of cold-resistant fabric invented by the company. Gore is profitable and growing. It turns over about $2.5 billion a year. That's all it has in common with everything we know about the international corporate world.

It has no employees - they're all "associates." It has no defined organizational structure. Management guru Gary Hamel visited the company five years ago. He says that one of the associates told him, if you tell anybody there what to do, he won't work for you anymore. And it works.

Do you want excellence?

Go to Gore's Web site (gore.com ). Find the page listing its businesses. It isn't like the site of an Israeli company. The section "About Gore" starts with the words: "Founded in 1958, W. L. Gore & Associates, Inc. is a privately-held company headquartered in Newark, Delaware, USA. For more than 50 years, Gore has built a worldwide reputation for ethics and integrity in its dealings with customers, suppliers, and employees, and for taking a long-term view when assessing business situations. Today, Gore has approximately 9,000 employees, called associates, located in 30 countries worldwide."

Gore is an extreme example, but there are any number of companies on the American top 50 list with inspiring and envy-provoking stories of excellence, competitiveness and innovation: companies focused on integrity, ethics, the good of customers and keeping their people happy - without bleeding the taxpayer to do it. Companies like Wegmans Food Market, high-tech outfits like SAS and Qualcomm, consultancies like Boston Consulting.

Israel has a few companies like that, based on excellence, innovation, a long-term view and concern for their workers. But they are the minority and their representation on the list of the 50 best employers is small. The Israeli list is rife with monopolies that preserve their financial standing despite the mediocrity of their employees and managers.

Only competitiveness and innovation can keep the Israeli economy competitive abroad. The structural reforms and decisions by Israeli governments in the future regarding society and the economy alike must be seen through this prism as well: what we want our labor market to look like 10 and 20 years down the line.

Do we want the most admired companies to be innovative and competitive firms creating value for customers and workers? Or companies where concerns about the welfare of managers and employees comes at the expense of shareholders, taxpayers and clients? An economy where the best companies to work for are cartels, monopolies or government companies with powerful unions that sup off the table of the taxpayer. An economy that is backward, unfair and unequal.