Benny Gaon 1935 - 2008

Benny's Genius One of Israel's greatest busi-ness leaders, Benny Gaon, passed away in Tel Aviv on Sunday, May 10 at the age of 73, after a long battle with cancer. He led a generation of managers who made money the old-fashioned way, by building industries, rather than buying and selling pieces of paper. As a management educator, I use case studies as learning tools. Benny Gaon's life was a great story. Here is how I would use it to teach: 1. Start at the bottom, work your way up and do lots of different jobs. Gaon (whose name in Hebrew means "genius") was born and raised in Beit Hakerem, then a middle-class Jerusalem neighborhood. His father, Moshe, was a scholar who studied the history of Sephardi Jewry. After army service (including two years of career army as a sergeant major), he held a variety of jobs, including working for his younger brother Yehoram's singing group as an electrician. He joined Electra, an appliance company, headed customer service and then took charge of marketing. He was next appointed CEO of Tadiran, another Histadrut consumer products company. He studied business administration in Geneva in the late 1960's, acquiring management tools he would later need. 2. Don't be afraid to take on seemingly lost causes. In 1998, while he was brilliantly reviving the moribund Blue Square Coop supermarket chain, Gaon received a phone call from Histadrut secretary-general Israel Keisar, asking him to take over the stumbling Koor Industries, a sprawling, unmanageable Histadrut-owned conglomerate with 32,000 workers, 100 industrial plants, 100 trading firms in Israel and abroad and 50 holding companies. Koor was broke. It owed $2.5 billion, most of it to Bankers Trust, which threatened to put Koor into bankruptcy and liquidate it. In the face of massive protests, Gaon fired 10,000 workers and, together with economics professor Eytan Sheshinski, who chaired Koor's Board of Directors from 1990 to 1995, engineered one of the greatest turnarounds in business history. 3. Talk softly; charisma is over-rated. Gaon was a quiet leader. Today, when managers with one per cent of his ability draw obscene salaries and pontificate daily in the media, Gaon preferred a life of quiet action. When he had something to say, he wrote it himself. His 1997 book, "Only the Bold Prevail," is compulsory reading for aspiring managers. 4. Serve your country. Gaon was a close friend of Yitzhak Rabin, who at one point wanted to make him finance minister. Gaon believed, as did Rabin, that Israel could make peace with the Palestinians. He believed that doing business with them was the key. "A Palestinian who makes an honest living will not attack his Israeli neighbors," Gaon told the press last December. "The Israeli economy cannot exist in a bubble, while ignoring the plight of its Palestinian neighbors." Last year he helped launch the Palestine International Business Forum to promote projects on the West Bank and Gaza. The first board meeting was held last December. Gaon strongly supported Amir Peretz's race for the Labor Party leadership and then for prime minister. He felt Peretz was cut from Rabin cloth and would battle for social justice. Had Peretz become prime minister, Gaon wanted to head negotiations with the Palestinians. But it was not to be. 5. Balance your work and your life. In many high-tech companies, the phrase work-life balance is a joke. What life? managers ask. Benny Gaon had a life. He and his wife Rachel raised four children and have 11 grandchildren. He had time for his family, time for charity work and time for the Labor party. 6. Bounce back, instead of sinking. In 1998 Gaon was abruptly fired by Jonathan Kolber and Charles Bronfman, who acquired Koor. He found 'revenge' by building Gaon Holdings, a Warren Buffett-like company that acquired and expanded businesses like H&O, Ace, Auto Depot and others. Gaon chaired the Israel Cancer Society since 1993, helping thousands of Israelis to battle cancer. When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced last October that he had prostate cancer, Gaon wrote an open letter to him in the leading daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. "You'll beat cancer, Ehud," he wrote. Ehud has, so far. But Gaon, alas, did not. He will be sorely missed. In reviving failed businesses Gaon was a genius. At his funeral former Teva CEO Israel Makov said Gaon that was "one of the best managers Israel has known he taught a whole generation of Israeli managers." • The writer is Academic Director, TIM-Tel Aviv.