Conquering the kibbutz

It was the first kibbutz in Israel to register houses in members’ names, and the first to set up pension funds.

Paul Steiner (photo credit: SHAI FOSBERY)
Paul Steiner
(photo credit: SHAI FOSBERY)
Thirty years ago this November, Paul Steiner made aliya to five-year-old Kibbutz Kadarim in the Upper Galilee with a garin (group) of Habonim members from Australia, a international Zionist youth movement. To their surprise and chagrin, they discovered that a faction of kibbutz members was strongly opposed to the Aussies’ presence. A heated conflict ensued over the next year.
“Two-thirds of the people fought to let us stay. And that struggle connected us to the place in heart and soul,” says Steiner, who was 23 when he arrived.
The naysayers eventually departed, and because of an unrelated land dispute, the kibbutz moved to a new site in 1987. It was all singles and young couples without children, affording a chance for a fresh start.
“The kibbutz had a failing factory that made rubber oil seals. The members who opposed us were mainly running the economy of the kibbutz, so when they left there was a management vacuum at the factory,” Steiner explains. “We new olim were still in ulpan but were asked to come and run it. I was asked to do the marketing.”
His college studies in politics and philosophy would not be helpful in this endeavor, so the kibbutz sent him for a course in international marketing. After two years as marketing manager of the factory, he replaced the business manager for the kibbutz and established a few new companies. One of them, acquired from Kibbutz Hagoshrim, manufactured bubble levels, an instrument showing whether a surface is level horizontally or vertically.
Steiner signed management agreements for that factory and then went to Australia for a year with his wife, Ruth.
She grew up in Sydney and the two met as Habonim camp counselors. Steiner’s parents had come separately to Adelaide; his father is an Auschwitz survivor from Slovakia, and his mother is a Jewish refugee from Egypt. They met at a synagogue dance in Adelaide and chose to raise their three children in its small Jewish community, though Steiner’s father was a staunch Zionist.
‘I feel more at home here’ “In our family, the biggest celebration every year was Yom Ha’atzmaut [Independence Day]. Israel was so important to my dad that it was a logical step that we’d want to help build the country. At age 15 or 16 I decided I wanted to live here, and when I was 18 I came for a year with Habonim,” Steiner relates. His older brother lived in Israel for 20 years and his twin sister spent 10 years at Kibbutz Kadarim. Both ended up returning to Australia.
In fact, out of more than 40 Australians once inhabiting Kibbutz Kadarim – making up nearly half the membership – only five remain. “A lot of them went back because they got together with Israeli partners who dragged them to Australia,” Steiner reveals with a laugh. “Generally, 90 percent of Australian olim go back. Australia is a hard country to leave and I love it, but I feel more at home here.”
Ever since childhood, he elaborates, he felt like an outsider in Australia – the only kid without a Christmas tree, and the son of Jewish immigrants, no less.
“When I grew up, Australia was a racist country; until 1974 you couldn’t get in if you weren’t white. Either you were an Aussie or a ‘wog,’ and my parents were wogs. I didn’t want them to speak to me on the street with their accents, and I have it coming to me that my kids do that to me here.” (He and Ruth have two children, Itai, 23, and Dana, 19.) “Now, even as a liberal progressive country, there is still underlying anti-Semitism in Australia,” Steiner says.
Upon returning to the kibbutz, he was made production manager at the tool factory – now called Kapro, short for Kadarim Products – and moved his way up to chief executive officer. He remained there 14 years.
“The company grew during my term to $16 million in revenue, and we brought in partners. We set up a factory in China that’s doing very well and allowed us to grow in markets we can’t access from Israel,” he says. “Israeli companies in traditional manufacturing cannot compete on price with China, and our domestic market isn’t big enough, so we need to grow through innovation.
And to maintain our competitive edge we must manage innovation like every other part of the business.”
A stimulating career He took this philosophy to his next venture as CEO of Huliot advanced flow systems, established at nearby Kibbutz Sde Nehemia in 1947. Steiner joined in May 2008, the first chief executive from the “outside.”
“Most key people had been there for decades and were retiring, and there was no next generation to take over. I felt it was a job I was ideally suited for in the sense that I understood a kibbutz industry and what needed to be done following the trauma of transition. Today, you can see the changes have been good and the business is still based on a strong tradition of great quality.”
Huliot specializes in water supply, drainage, sewage and gray-water pipes for the Israeli and global construction industry.
Another 20 percent of the business is plastic office storage and filing systems.
“In drainage we’re market leaders, and we want to develop that business internationally,” Steiner says. “We bought a factory last year in Slovenia to be close to the European market, and also began manufacturing in India, a market we’d studied for six years. They build seven million homes a year there.”
Though he never would have predicted a career in traditional manufacturing, Steiner finds it stimulating. “You’ve got money and people and marketing and design and innovation and engineering.
You’ve got real products you can touch and hold. The most pleasurable moments for me are when I’m traveling around the world and seeing our products in use.”
However, he loves nowhere else in the world as much as the Upper Galilee, and recommends this area to other immigrants. “Nearly everybody heads to the center of the country, but in the periphery there are so many great places to live and the most beautiful parts of the country,” Steiner says. “If you can become part of a small community, it dramatically increases your likelihood of establishing roots and feeling at home.”
In his leisure time, Steiner enjoys playing golf and going out on his seven-seater speedboat on Lake Kinneret. The boat is named Anita, for his twin sister, who died just shy of their 50th birthday. He and Ruth – a lawyer, writer and painter – plan to learn Arabic this summer.
He notes that Kibbutz Kadarim is expanding and welcomes new members.
It was the first kibbutz in Israel to register houses in members’ names, and the first to set up pension funds. It operates on a system of differential salary; the more you earn, the more you keep.
Though Kadarim is a secular kibbutz, Steiner wraps tefillin on his arm and head every morning and organizes the kibbutz’s Yom Kippur services every year. “I look for hiloni [secular] meaning in religious tradition. Jewish tradition is important to me and to most members here. Anything else is handing victory to the Nazis.”