Hershey Friedman’s specialty is rescuing businesses on the brink of collapse and reviving them to become resounding success stories.
With his pious appearance and wise eyes, the 63-year-old Friedman looks and sounds like a Talmudic genius as he sits in his Tel Aviv office and contemplates his vision for Azorim, the residential real-estate company he owns, and his commitment to the Jewish state.
“Israel is our true land. It is the land of our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” he declares in his Montreal Jewish accent. “Israel will always be there. Israel will always have a future.”
An international businessman and philanthropist who spends a week to 10 days in Israel every month, the Canadian billionaire purchased the ailing Azorim in 2011 and turned it around to become one of Israel’s most exciting enterprises.
“I have a very good instinct,” he acknowledges, modestly. “I have a smell and a gut, and that tells me with a lot of projects what to do and what not to do.”
Among its many projects Azorim has built across the country is its prestigious Beeri Nehardea tower apartments in Tel Aviv.
“Beeri is the most exclusive building in Israel,” Friedman says, proudly.
“Only the who’s who of Israel live in that complex. When I took it over, it was pretty much on the edge of bankruptcy. My gut told me it could be very successful, and we made a really big success of it.”
Although the design is still a much-guarded secret, Azorim is now planning a 280-meter-tall skyscraper in Ramat Gan.
“The Elite Tower is one of a kind,” Friedman says, his eyes sparkling behind his glasses as he gazes at an architectural sketch of what has become his flagship project. “I didn’t want to go to 100 floors, which is permitted, but it will be the tallest residential building in the Middle East. The concept of the type of apartments was never done before in Israel, like building lofts, which is an American thing.”
In all of Azorim’s residential projects, Friedman says, he insists on owning the land himself and aspiring for the highest quality.
“I look to have more than just the regular,” he says, pointing to upscale residential complexes such as the Boutique Hanevi’im, King David’s Residence and Arzei Habira in Jerusalem, the 160-unit Ne’eman Towers in Tel Aviv, a gated community in Motza, and park neighborhoods for younger families in Netanya, Rehovot, Yavne and Ashdod.
Friedman is known as a quiet but strong supporter of Israel and its government.
“I’ve traveled the world, and this is a lovely country. The greatest rabbis in the world are in Israel, and I found a deep connection to them, which I really, really enjoy,” he says.
“I think you’ve also got tough government officials here. Everyone has gone through a war, everybody knows what it is to keep Israel alive.”
Friedman believes Israel’s best friend in the world today is Canada, because of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper “With Harper, you got something very special, because the Canadian government has never really been pro-Israel. This is sheer luck that you got a guy like Harper to be so pro-Israel. It is unheard of in Canada for such a thing to happen, but it makes us Jews feel really, really good to have someone who understands the Jewish faith.”
Friedman has some criticism of Israel, too. He says he has encountered many problems here, including the constant threats of law suits, abusive conduct, and bureaucracy.
“You know, you buy a piece of land over here, and you think you’re going to develop it tomorrow,” he says. “But you can wait 15 to 20 years before you start the project.”
Asked if he has gotten used to it, he says: “You learn the hard way.
Once you get used to knowing what Israel is all about, you can live with it. You know that if you cross at a red light, you’re gonna be hit. So at least cross at a green light and look out for yourself. In America, you just cross at a green light and that’s it. In Israel, you still have to look.
That’s how I would make a comparison.
It’s a harder country [in which] to do business, a much more difficult life in general, but it’s more exciting.”
Still, he understands why it’s tough to live in Israel.
“Israel is a very difficult country, probably because the people have a very difficult life. Their whole attitude in the business world and character is very different,” he says.
“In America, who worries? In Canada, you go to sleep at night and you don’t worry. You know you’re going to wake up the next morning and no bombs are going to explode. It’s a peaceful country. In Israel, you go to sleep at night and in the morning, you want to know what’s on the news.”
FRIEDMAN WAS born in 1950 in Montreal. When he was 10, his father was involved in a serious car accident that left him paralyzed.
The traumatic event forced his mother to take on management of the family textile business to allow his two older brothers to continue their higher education.
At 13, he became a student at Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore, where he spent two years, followed by two years at Beit Shraga in Monsey, New York, after which he returned to Montreal. At the age of 17, Hershey was propelled into management of the family business in order for his 2 brothers to continue their education.
“I was a businessman even when I was a little boy,” he recalls, grinning.
“I remember buying pencils, erasers and sharpeners and selling them at school.”
After his bar mitzva, he visited a construction site, took orders from workers and purchased items at the local store for them at a profit. After a while, he saved up enough money to buy his first soda vending machine, which he installed on the construction site.
At the age of 32, after having led the family business and studying law and accounting in the evening at Montreal College, Friedman got into the plastics, printing and flexible packaging industry at the recommendation of a neighbor in Montreal. He took a company that was on the verge of bankruptcy and made it an enormous success. In the years that followed, he bought two dozen more companies in the same industry as well as other industries with a turnover of billions of dollars.
“We are probably the biggest packaging company in North America, because we don’t go under one name,” he says. “If you put them all together, all over the US and Canada, we are the largest in North America, packaging Hershey’s chocolates, Pepsi, Nestle, Elle Candy, the famous Entenmann’s donuts, McCain’s fries, as well as larger and smaller companies internationally and locally. We’re also probably the largest bread-bag producer.”
He also took over the largest kosher deli factory in North America in 2010, turning it from a business in trouble to one that is profitable.
In most of his investments, Friedman gained a reputation for implementing turnaround plans for companies in trouble, restoring them to health and returning them to profitability.
He has been active in various sectors all over the world, especially in North America, eastern Europe and Israel.
Friedman owns half of the business information company Dun & Bradstreet, Fourier, which produces solutions for scientific education, and CVD, a development company.
His many business ventures in Israel over the last two decades reflect Friedman’s special connection to the Jewish homeland. At the beginning of 2009, he showed interest in acquiring Azorim from the real-estate developer Shaya Boymelgreen.
Although at the last minute, Boymelgreen changed his mind, Friedman persisted and eventually purchased the company two years later. He then made a strategic decision to sell most of its commercial real estate and concentrate on residential real estate.
“I started reworking the company, getting rid of what I considered non-core business,” he said. “Anything out of Israel I sold off, but not at a loss. We got rid of our commercial properties, such as the big Ir Yamim mall in Netanya which we sold this past year, and we sold a lot of what you call commercial business from Azorim. It brought in a lot of needed funding and also let us concentrate on what Azorim always was, number one in residential [real estate], and brought it back to what it once was. Our plans are to keep it that way, rebuild ourselves back to 100 percent, and down the line we’ll see if we want to diversify or not.”
Throughout his business career, Friedman has never sold any company that he bought, and although Azorim is the only publicly traded company in his portfolio, he says he does not intend to make any exception and “is looking forward to a bright and positive future.”
Asked if his Judaism motivates his business, he says no.
“You train yourself that come Friday evening, this world doesn’t exist anymore until motzei Shabbat [the night after Shabbat],” he explains. “You have to discipline yourself. Being an observant religious Jew has nothing to do with the business world. I don’t think faith is a dominant issue. Work ethics is what you’re brought up on. It comes with what you see, what your father has done. And the people around you, they have really the biggest effect on you. Then again you train yourself [as to] what business ethics you want. These will be the ethics of your life also.”
Besides his myriad business activities, Friedman is also one of the biggest Jewish philanthropists in the world. He has donated buildings in his family name in Israel, Canada and the US, and given generously to many institutions, including hospitals, schools, yeshivas and facilities for the disabled.
“Remember, I had a father who was disabled, so I know what it’s all about,” he says. “We have big budgets over here.”
Friedman has also invested tens of millions of dollars in the publication of Judaica books, under the imprint “Mahadurat Friedman,” most of them produced and published in Israel.
These include Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, Shulhan Aruch and a new Mishnayot and Mishna Berura.
He has also just completed the Abir Yaacov, a series of books by Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzeira, comprising 25 volumes.
“In Israel, we have over 500 people working just on the books, and it’s spread out all over the country, in cities like Jerusalem, Haifa, Beit Shemesh and Ashdod and many more areas, so we don’t confine it to one place,” he says. “You can also find them in hesder yeshivot worldwide.
I was just in South Africa this winter, and I saw my books there.”
Friedman and his wife Raisy have six married children, all of whom have joined his wide-ranging business domain, and grandchildren.
Associates describe him as a warm person who is very close to his family and prefers to work with a small team away from the spotlight.
“All of my children and sons-inlaw studied in Israel before they got married and after they got married,” he says. “At one point, I had four of my children married in Israel.
Prior to that, when my oldest son started coming to Israel, I started to visit him. That was about 20 years ago, he was still a teenager at the time, and today he’s 37. So I got involved, I started off small in the real-estate industry in Israel, a small project in Ashdod, then Beit Shemesh, and then grew bigger and bigger, and got associated with the bigger boys here in Israel.”
And Israel, he insists, belongs to the Jews.
“If we go back in history thousands of years ago, Israel was the land God gave to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Promised Land. Now the Arabs want Palestine – it was Palestine under British rule. The reality is that the Jews always owned Israel. They got chased out, they came back, they got chased out, they came back and after the last Holocaust, they felt that they really needed a country. That was how Israel was created in 1948. Israel is here to stay unless God destroys the world.”