How an Israeli heiress built sustainability into her businesses

The Gunther Report

How an Israeli heiress built sustainability into her businesses

Shari Arison, an Israeli-American billionaire and philanthropist who is said to be the richest woman in the Middle East, presides over an array of global businesses that employ more than 24,000 people.

There’s Bank Hapoalim, one of Israel’s largest banks. There’s Shikun & Binui, a leading infrastructure and real estate firm with projects in Europe, Latin America and Africa as well as Israel. There’s Miya, a fast-growing water efficiency company with projects all over the world. And there’s Salt of the Earth, Israel’s leading salt producer.

They would seem to have little in common. But all of them, she says, share a purpose: Doing good. “Doing good on a personal level and on a collective level -- for our company, for our customers, for our employees, for our nation and the world,” she says.

Well, sure -- we all want to do good, don’t we? Most every company wants to make products that are useful, create jobs, help its people to flourish and generate wealth for its owners. No corporate executive, except for the occasional scoundrel, sets out to exploit people.

What sets Arison apart is her willingness to put that sense of purpose front and center, and talk about how it guides her business, philanthropic and civic activities–sometimes in ways that leave her vulnerable to critics.

I recently met with Arison and Efrat Peled (left), who is the chairman and CEO of Arison Investments when they visited Washington. Shari, who is in her mid 50s, inherited most of her wealth from her father, Ted Arison, the founder of Carnival Cruise Lines; she is a self-taught executive. Peled, who is in her late 30s, is a CPA with a graduate degree from the Kellogg School at Northwestern. Neither has direct operating responsibility for companies in the Arison group, but Peled sits on the board of the bank, the construction company, the water company and the salt company. They both have a say in hiring top executives, where they seek leaders who share their values.

“It took us years to get the right people in place,” Shari says. “We want to use business as a platform for doing good and creating change.”

But how? Lots of ways, it turns out, depending on the particulars of the company. Some examples, as laid out by Shari and Efrat:

At Bank Hapoalim (the “laborers” bank), which was started by trade unionists in the 1920s, the focus is on working with customers to “enhance their financial freedom.” It’s about “empowering people, giving people the knowledge and tools to make the right financial choices,” Efrat said. The bank invests in education for its customers, and others, around budgeting, saving and investing. It starts with the young–a savings program called Dan Haschan (“Dan the Saver”) encourages children to open savings account, join an online club and bank at special children’s ATMs, which is good for business as well as a learning opportunity.

The bank ran into problems during the 2008 financial crisis, and a top executive was forced to step down by regulators. But Shari says the crisis turned out to be good for her argument that values matter. It became clear that greed brought down some big financial institutions. “Everybody was in it for themselves,” she says. “I kept saying that businesses that aren’t values-based aren’t going to survive. People didn’t get it.” Now they do, she says.

Shikun & Binui, which like the bank is older than the state of Israel, focuses on sustainable real-estate development. It has developed an open-air shopping mall in the desert city of Beer-sheba that relies on natural lighting, sun shading and environmentally-friendly materials, as well as solar-power projects in Israel and elsewhere. All of its projects must meet sustainability criteria, Arison says.

The water company Miya, which was started just five years ago by Arison, uses technology to help cities waste less water. It’s Arison’s first startup. “Miya came, really, from my soul,” she says. “Let’s focus on the fact that we have an abundance of water.  We just need to use it efficiently and stop wasting it.” Miya has been awarded water-efficiency projects in the Philippines, South Africa, Brazil, Canada and the Caribbean; the company says it has enabled its partner in Manila alone to deliver water to 2 million people who never had it before, by saving water elsewhere in the city.

Of course, it’s hard to assess corporate sustainability performance from afar. But the Arison companies appear to be well respected. In Israel, Maala, a corporate-responsibility association, gives Bank Hapoalim a platinum rating, its highest. The bank is also part of the FTSE4Good index, a leading international sustainability index.

Shari herself is also admired, particularly for her philanthropy. She has given away more than $250 million to a variety of causes. Her annual “Good Deeds” day in Israel attracted more than 250,000 participants. Yet some of her pronouncements have raised eyebrows; several years ago she told reporters that she can see into the future, and anticipated Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami before they happened.

So how are the Arison companies doing in business terms? Judging by their stock prices, they are neither standouts nor laggards. Shares in Bank Hapoalim and Shikun & Binui outperformed the Israeli stock index during certain time periods, but trailed the market during others. The underlying financials at both the bank and the real estate-infrastructure firm look strong, with revenues and profits growing steadily for the past three years, the company says (and this chart shows, for the bank). Shari says her focus is on long-term value, not the short-term fluctations of the stock.

US business people and MBA students who are interested in values, business and corporate responsibility will be hearing more about the Arison companies. Although details are still being worked out, Shari, Efrat and their colleagues have been working with academics at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, at Harvard Business School and at Babson College to develop a curriculum around values, ethics, spirituality and business.

Cynics may doubt that business schools (or billionaires) can teach values. The truth is,  there’s no better place, other than perhaps churches or synagogues, for business people to think deeply about how they can do good–or not.