Israel “Izzy” Tapoohi’s five-year term leading the Development Corporation for Israel – better known as Israel Bonds – has been unquestionably consequential.
In that time period, the broker-dealer has gone from underwriting and selling $600 million worth of Israeli government bonds in the US annually to yearly domestic sales exceeding $1 billion. The 65-year-old organization has been transformed from a specialty investment vehicle primarily for supporters of Israel into a significant option for investors looking to balance and diversify their portfolios.
With six months left before he steps down and turns the reins of Israel Bonds over to Israel Maimon, a former cabinet secretary, Tapoohi talked to The Jerusalem Post about what has changed over the course of his term, the accomplishments he is proudest of, and why he thinks Israel’s economy is still a great bet.Looking back over the past five years, what do you think are the most significant steps Israel Bonds has taken?
I think we turned this organization around to be recognized as a true brokerage firm and not as a nonprofit organization.
I am very proud that we have an enterprise that, from a US regulatory point of view, is in full compliance with the most rigorous requirements.
We have transformed Israel Bonds into a high-powered brokerage firm that is today competitive in cost with other brokerage firms of its size in the US, and yet maintains its Jewish heart. I am especially proud of our strong New Leadership program. At one time, the involvement of young people with Israel Bonds was minimal. Today, we have young Jewish professionals across the country actively supporting our efforts.
Sales have nearly doubled in your tenure. How did that happen?
I changed the corporate narrative from the geopolitical to the economic, focusing on the resilience of the Israeli economy. In other words, instead of making the pitch solely about supporting Israel, we made it about making a good investment as well. Another important aspect I have stressed is increasing investments via our e-commerce site and emphasizing a proactive sales approach that included expanding our national call center. Before, if Mr. Cohen had a bond that matured on April 1, he would rarely be called to see what he wanted to do. Now we call a month before and say, “We have some good alternatives and rates,” and most often they will respond “Sure, I’d love to reinvest the bonds.”
As a result of this approach, we have dramatically increased our reinvestment rate and significantly expanded our client base. About 85% of our retail sales are $25,000 and below. We have over 500,000 bondholders, encompassing about two million people – over one third of the Jewish population in the United States. We have greatly improved our technological capabilities for analyzing client data, enabling us to secure investments more effectively.
Online, we have an aggressive digital media presence (including with The Jerusalem Post) to promote sales and heighten brand awareness. When a viewer clicks on our ads, it brings him or her to israelbonds.com and they can invest.
The important part is that over 45,000 bondholders have come via online sales, so this method of securing investments is more efficient. It is operationally seamless.One of the interesting trends has been the spread of the organization globally. Can you tell me about those efforts?
When I came to the US to become Bonds CEO, I spent the first 18 months moving the American operation forward, ensuring that we were following all the regulations and expanding our marketing in an effective way.
Then, we were able to start looking at the international sales operation.
We had to get approval from the UK Financial Conduct Authority, which enabled us to “passport” our way into Germany and France under EU regulations. In other words, once we were set up in the UK, it was simpler to open operations in other European locations, but in each of these countries we had to secure approval from local regulators.
Today, in addition to the UK, we sell in France, Germany and Belgium, and we are hoping to expand into additional European countries in the coming months.
As with the US, we are conducting an active digital campaign within Europe. We are also holding events, meetings and discussions with Jewish community leaders.
We recently had talks with a large European institutional investor, and, when someone mentioned concerns about BDS, they said they would just increase their investment due to the strength of the Israeli economy, which was a remarkable statement.
The Canadian operation is also being converted into a fully-compliant brokerage firm. We are now working on completing operations in Latin America. We have opened offices in Mexico and Brazil, and we are looking at Argentina and other Latin American countries.
Currently, international sales are roughly $250m. annually, on top of more than $1b. in the United States. We are hoping to achieve annual sales of $400m. internationally within the next three years.
In all of these places we are making sure to KYC [know your customer]. If we cannot ensure that AML [anti-money laundering] procedures are properly done, and if the payment is not transferred from the buyer’s personal account, we will not accept it.How have you been able to successfully communicate the strength and resilience of Israel’s economy during the past few years, which have seen so much global economic tumult?
We are one of the fortunate nations, and that is why people are looking at our economy and saying, “How did they do it?” Israelis are entrepreneurial in approach and they are risk-takers. There has been discussion about whether Israeli entrepreneurs should be selling companies at an early stage or growing their companies to become global enterprises. Well, we Israelis are tremendous on innovation and entrepreneurship, but we are not so good at marketing. So we are better off having a few big companies and developing others so that we are a true start-up nation, selling start-ups and ensuring that the money comes back into the Israeli economy, allowing funding for new incubators and the development of new start-ups.
If we do not take that route, we can become overly dependent on one large company, and a small economy can be tremendously affected by a downturn. Take Finland. When iPhone and Samsung knocked Nokia off the market, the economy almost went under because it was all built on this one company. You need to diversify.
When you compare Israel to other countries, we have been doing relatively better. If you say “Israel only grew by 2.5%,” well, Europe grew by much less and the US by no more, so in relative terms we are doing very well. Tell me, how many countries have a debt-to-GDP of 64.9%? Additionally, Israel has a currency that is much more stable, because our trade is better balanced among various currency areas. We have a healthy trade balance. In Australia, for example, the minute China hiccuped, the Australian dollar dropped from parity by almost 30%! It is true that Israel is in a rough neighborhood, but that translates to somewhat higher interest, even though the wars and instability have hardly affected the economy or the stock market.Finally, what advice do you have for your successor?
First of all, I would hope – and I know my successor quite well, so I am confident – that he continues the message we have been communicating for the past five years. At the end of the day, the people who are investing in bonds, especially the Jewish population, care about helping Israel, but they also care about a good return. The majority of visitors to our website are looking at rates. It shows we have really converted this to a business narrative.
It is important to keep that narrative.
Of course, he should also emphasize that Israel Bonds are a way for people to support Israel in tough times.
You know, when the Gaza conflict was going on, we sold almost a quarter of a billion dollars in a very short period of time.
When a real crisis takes place, our retail clients put Israel at the top of their priorities. We have an emergency plan in case there is ever a serious crisis in Israel, where the economy would be at a standstill. My successor will have to further develop this plan, knowing Israel Bonds will have to step forward in a crisis to help the economy stay strong.
Izzy Tapoohi is speaking at The Jerusalem Post's Annual Conference in New York on May 22. Click here to register for the conference.