Leaders of Israel's business community as well as several politicians gathered at Moshav Beit Halevi in Emek Hefer on Sunday to attend the funeral of business genius and philanthropist Benny Gaon who succumbed to cancer on Saturday night.
The Jerusalem-born Gaon played a significant role in steering Israel's economy towards what it is today.
After earning an MBA in Geneva, Gaon served in a number of important managerial positions. He was managing director of Tadiran; vice president of Sylvania, a subsidiary of GTE in Western Europe; chairman of the Israel Advertisers' Association, a member of the Boards of Directors of Hevrat Ovdim, Hamashbir and Bank Hapoalim. In the mid-1960s he helped to set up Koor Inter-Trade and became its managing director. Following the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, he established Koor-Trade offices in Egypt in 1979. He later headed the Co-Op retail chain of supermarkets.
Koor Industries, Israel's major industrial conglomerate, had been owned by Hevrat Ovdim, which was the economic umbrella organization of the Histadrut Labor Federation and comprised 100 industrial plants, 100 trade firms in Israel and abroad and 50 management and holding companies. From 1974 onwards Koor was listed by Fortune magazine as one of the 500 largest industrial corporations in the world.
But the once-invincible Koor began to crack at the seams. Gaon, who was very close to then-Histadrut secretary-general Israel Kessar, was asked to come to the rescue.
He came up with a recovery program which, initially, did not endear him to the thousands of workers employed in the various Koor subsidiaries, but they eventually realized that if they did not go along with his plans, at least in part, Koor would be liquidated. Indeed, Banker's Trust of Boston called for the liquidation of Koor. Austrian banks to which Koor owed much more money than to Banker's Trust came to Gaon's rescue. Through emergency loans and drastic cutbacks, he rehabilitated Koor to the extent that it once again became profitable and a giant on Israel's industrial scene.
It was subsequently purchased by the Claridge Group, headed by Charles Bronfman and Jonathan Kolber.
Gaon then proceeded to put his experience with Koor to use and founded Gaon Holdings.
Politically identified with the Labor Party, Gaon was very close to Yitzhak Rabin, who wanted to appoint him finance minister.
He was active in many public bodies. Together with his brother, singer Yehoram Gaon, he financed the Moshe David Gaon Center for Ladino Studies at Ben-Gurion University, a memorial to their father. Moshe David Gaon had been a school principal, historian, poet and Jerusalem City Council member.
As a cancer patient, Gaon fully understood the importance of cancer research and headed the Israel Cancer Association's fundraising campaign. Gaon freely answered questions about his illness and even wrote about himself. "There's nothing to be ashamed of in having cancer," he said.
An ardent believer in the peace process, he was one of a group of Israeli businessmen who last year launched an Israeli-Palestinian Business Forum, hoping that successful business relationships might lead to new facts on the ground.
Gaon, who was 73 at the time of his death, is survived by his wife Rachel, his children Michal, Moshe, Boaz and Yoav, 11 grandchildren, his sister, Kalila Armon, and his brothers Yigal and Yehoram.