Hearts and Diamonds

What odds for the uneducated son of an Uzbeki mohel (ritual circumciser), dealt a poor hand at birth, becoming Israel's wealthiest person and among the world's top 200 wealthiest, by reinventing a major global industry? Minute, by all accounts - but Lev Leviev did it. Lev ("heart" in Hebrew) Avnerovich Leviev owns LLD Ltd., which together with real estate giant Africa-Israel Ltd., gives him an estimated wealth of between $4 billion and $8 billion. LLD exported $522 million worth of diamonds last year, making it Israel's top diamond exporter. Israel's diamond industry was born in Petah Tikva 70 years ago, cutting and polishing imported rough stones. Concentrated in Ramat Gan, it has always been shrouded in some secrecy. Even the numbers are a bit mysterious. Israel exports about $12 billion yearly in polished diamonds but half are returned - finicky customers want a big choice, so retailers take stock on consignment. Total net exports of rough and polished diamonds in 2007 totalled $10.38 billion, but imports of the rough diamonds amounted to $9.6 billion, so net value added (the difference between those two numbers) is about $0.78 billion - nothing to sneeze at. Over half of polished diamond exports are sold in the U.S. Now 51, Leviev finished 10th grade, back in his native city of Tashkent. He arrived in Israel as a teenager and was sent, with his family, to Kiryat Malakhi, a development town in the Negev. Working as a diamond cutter, he learned all 11 steps required to create a polished diamond from a rough gem. "I knew from the time I was 6 that I was destined to be a millionaire," he said in a New York Times magazine piece last September. How did he do it? He applied what management guru Gary Hamel calls business-model innovation. The South African company De Beers ("A diamond is forever" ) held a near-monopoly on the diamond business for years. Upstart Leviev joined forces with Russia to crack the De Beers cartel, "with instincts of a tiger and the balls of a panther," a Tel Aviv diamond merchant says. He gave up his privileged De Beers "sightholder" (dealer) position and took on De Beers, building an end-to-end business that mines diamonds in Namibia, Angola and Russia, polishes them and sells them in upscale shops on London's Old Bond Street and Manhattan's Madison Avenue. He built close ties to Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos. Almost singlehandedly, he revived Israel's diamond industry, for a time moribund in the face of competition from Indian and Russian diamond polishers. Thanks to Leviev, Israel is again a major player. And this, while contributing to a restructuring of Angola's diamond sector, assisting the government to stabilize the industry, combatting the illicit trade of "blood diamonds" and raising state revenues. He has been awarded commendations from the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme, the international group that imposes extensive requirements to certify that diamonds are 'conflict free' and not being used to finance violence. In 1996, Leviev acquired a real estate company, Africa-Israel, from Bank Leumi chairman Eitan Raff for $400 million. Leviev himself holds three-quarters of Africa-Israel shares, now worth $4.2 billion (NIS 15.8 billion) at current Tel Aviv Stock Exchange prices. He has built Africa-Israel into a global real estate player. After 9/11, Leviev bought the J.P. Morgan building (near Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center) for a song, reported to be $100 m., and made it into luxury condos, reaping a huge profit. Leviev knows how to pick strong managers. Until recently Africa-Israel was headed by Erez Meltzer, a former IDF colonel who ran Netafim and CreoScitex as CEO. He has nine children, including two older daughters who work for him as senior executives. His partner in Africa-Israel was once oligarch, the somewhat infamous Arkady Gaydamak, who sold his 15 percent interest - and lost a potential fortune. In contrast to Leviev, Gaydamak is reportedly under investigation for financial irregularities and corruption, and is mounting a questionable political effort in Israel. Leviev has been in the media spotlight lately since announcing plans to live in London, rather than Israel, motivated by tax savings. His $70 million house in Hampstead is next to those of other Israeli tycoons. Leviev observes Shabbat, wears a small black kippa, and quietly supports many charities in Israel, the United States and Russia. He is an adherent of Chabad. As a young 22-year-old father, he circumcised his first-born son Shalom - the first brit mila he ever performed. Later, he parlayed the same fearlessness, together with chutzpa, business savvy and a strong heart to build a fortune in diamonds, as well as, he notes, a good name. If you have one, he says, "the banks will give you all the money you need." • The writer is academic director, TIM-Tel Aviv.