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.

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