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For Iris Stark, the economic mastermind and accountant at heart who led the reform of Israel's second largest port, the conflict in the North was the first opportunity to show off Ashdod's ability to serve as the leading port in the eastern Mediterranean basin.
"Our employees and management proved that they can work 24 hours so that imports and exports to Israel would not be hurt," says Stark, chairman of the Ashdod Port Company's board of directors, smiling proudly in her modest office overseeing the port's container operation, which has been working at full steam since the start of hostilities in the North.
With activity at the country's largest port in Haifa frozen as Hizbullah rockets rained down on the city, the number of containers arriving at the Ashdod port between July 17 and 29 was 35 percent higher than the average volume of traffic during the first six months of the year. And the Ashdod Port Company successfully rose to the occasion, standing firm during the crisis and managing nonstop labor on the part of the port's workers, which allowed the facility to handle the increase in operations without delays.
"Under the new management, we are focusing on establishing Ashdod's status as the leading port in the eastern Mediterranean basin, a hub port for international sea, to put Israel on the international map in world shipping," says Stark with glimmer of excitement in her eyes.
Stark, a certified public accountant who left a successful career in the business and private sector, sees her current position as a national mission to ensure the implementation and assimilation of a new business culture at the port and to ensure the right steps are taken to adapt the port to working in a competitive environment.
"Privatization creates competition and is a key catalyst for economic growth," says Stark.
The 45-year-old, who joined the port in January 2005, led the organizational reform of the Israeli port system that went into effect in February of that year. The reform, considered one of the most important elements of the economic reform plan put forward by the government, broke the authority into three independent companies (Ashdod, Haifa and Eilat), and a fourth company - IPC - to maintain state control of the property. The objective of the reform was to generate competition in the sector and thereby improve the efficiency and level of customer service at Israel's ports. Stark managed to end her first year leading the process with a net profit of NIS 30 million.
"When I took over the port, we had to implement all business structures from scratch," Stark says. "There were no management, marketing, budget structures or efficiency measures."
Stark has made it her mission to install a new customer service strategy with the aim of improving and streamlining customer service and work procedures. "I believe in cultivating and establishing a partnership between workers and management such as share options programs for workers and other incentives."
Stark was also part of one of the country's largest infrastructure projects - the development of the Eitan Terminal in Ashdod Port, which opened in August 2005 and was named in memory of Lieutenant General (res.) Raphael Eitan.
The Eitan Port docks are the first computerized docks in Israel and enjoy one of the most advanced systems in the world - the TOS (Terminal Operation System). This system runs and controls all movement from the new container terminal at the waterline to the port gates, thus streamlining work and reducing ship waiting time by some 70%. Customers are now able to obtain complete, real time information concerning the status of their cargoes.
Stark's unique commitment to widen her horizons combined with her professionalism opened up the gateway to board member activities through which she built an incredible professional network. From the start of her career, the mother of seven has not missed any opportunity to gain experience and fresh insights as a director on numerous boards of public and private companies, as well as banks and government committees in the front ranks of the Israeli economy, including First International Bank, Bezeq, Aryt Industries Ltd., the advisory committee of the Bank of Israel and the Red Cross.
"Unless you are out there, no one will know that you are good," says Stark. "Success has no elevator, you have to take the stairs."
In an effort to focus on her mission at the port, Stark has minimized her board activities to membership at the Maxima Air Separation Center and the post of vice-president of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants in Israel.
Graduating cum laude from Bar-Ilan University with a Masters Degree in Economics and Accounting, Stark, from the start, has been fascinated by numbers, while understanding the significance of the profession as a basic tool in the economic world.
"Accounting and auditing are the basics for understanding the ins and outs of companies, building business and management models and dealing with risk management," says Stark.
After graduating, Stark joined KPMG, working there for seven years until 1989 when she joined her husband as a partner at the Stark & Stark accountant firm, founded in 1984.
During her career, Stark has become a specialist in business support; inspection and auditing for companies; formulating rehabilitation programs; and advising government companies, while also lecturing on the subject of board directors and management at Bar-Ilan University. With a great understanding of the economic world, Stark also has been a strong promoter of the economic importance of the inclusion of women into this arena.
"Women have an economic saying to influence the world of business. Women have an understanding of the economic importance of ethics and careful management, which are the basics of corporate governance," says Stark, who heads the Forum for Economic Development for senior women executives. "Encouraging the employment of women at every level will contribute to a company's profitability."
Stark has called for affirmative action and proper legislation for the inclusion of women on company boards. "There is discrimination, women are not treated as equals. Women want to be in business, parliament and the Knesset, while having a family."
Stark suggested that every company balance sheet should detail the number of women employed and the number of women on their management boards and board of directors.
"I hardly ever turn down speaking at an event that tries to help encourage the development and progress of women in the modern world," says Stark. "I feel it is my duty to share my experience at public events if I can have an influence on women's issues such as the value of family life and career life."
As such, Stark, who manages to intertwine the traditional world of religion with the modern world, is against women delaying the age of having a family for the sake of developing a career.
"Women are good at managing time. Working efficiently allows for normal and flexible working hours, while avoiding having to schedule evening meetings," says Stark, who commutes to work every day from Ra'anana to Ashdod. "A supportive husband and a happy family life help your career."
Asked to talk about her personal experience in managing the two worlds, Stark is rather protective about her privacy.
"I believe that what you haven't done today is already too late, therefore, the only thing I can say is that my day is very long but stimulating. "Still, at the end of the day, my greatest achievement is my children and my family."
Talking about personal philosophy Stark says, "Ideally you wake up hungry every morning thinking there is always another challenge waiting for you."
Name: Iris Stark
Status: Married with 7 kids
Education: BA Economics & Accounting at Bar-Ilan University
MA Economics Bar-Ilan University
Certificate Public Accountant
Professional milestones: Accountant at KPMG
Partner at Stark & Stark accounting firm
Chairman of the Ashdod Port Company's board of directors