Israeli supermarket magnate Rami Levy recently got involved in a new business – real estate. And not just any real estate; several days ago, Levy made a successful bid to take over development of the Nof Zion project, a new Jewish neighborhood in lands liberated by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War that was in danger of being purchased by an Arab businessman.
In an interview, Levy, who refused to be interviewed by other media, told Israel National News TV's Yoni Kempinski that he was investing in the project, of course, because it was a good business move – but also, he said, because “of my love for the city of Jerusalem and its importance to the Jewish people.”
Levy is a businessman – a successful one, judging by his accomplishments in the supermarket business. But he's a businessman with a “neshama" (soul). As he tells Israel National News TV, one of the reasons he gives such high discounts in his supermarkets is because “it helps some families 'finish the month' with their food budget, or even helps put meals on their Shabbat table.” Israeli salaries are paid once a month and "finishing the month" is an Israeli expression meaning staying within one's monthly budget. Levy is in business to make money, but he tries to do it by sticking to Jewish and Zionist values.
Call it “Jewish capitalism.”
Levy's new foray into real estate could turn out to be his most important one, from a Zionist point of view, as it rescues the neighborhood from the clutches of Arab-American businessman Bashar Al-Masri, who was willing to pay a pretty penny to the bankrupt builder of the project, Digal. “This is going to be a large neighborhood,” says Levy, who is also a member of the Jerusalem City Council. “Ninety homes have already been built, and another 300 are planned. There is no reason why Jews should not live there.” The opportunity to take over the project was an attractive one, he says, both from a financial and ideological perspective. “It's a business opportunity, but also an opportunity to invest in Jerusalem in a major way. I love Jerusalem and prefer to invest here than in other places.”
He may be an idealist, but as a businessman, Levy is also a realist. “We have a very complicated situation here in Jerusalem,” he says. “We have three major groups – secular and traditional Jews, hareidi-religious Jews, and Arabs – who are each about a third of the city's population. This is the reality and it is not going to change, and the only way to deal with this reality is to learn to live with it. None of the groups can decide that 'we are here and the others aren't.' In the end, I believe that Jerusalem will remain united, and under Israeli rule.”
Levy also gives a lot of credit to Mayor Nir Barkat for his management of the city, saying that “he will be judged by history as one of Jerusalem's best mayors.”
Levy's idealism-flavored capitalism had in the past led him to undertake yet another move that was considered quite controversial; the opening of supermarkets bearing his name in Judea and Samaria. “Before I opened my first Yesha supermarket, in Shaar Binyamin, colleagues told me that I was simply not normal; that no one invests in those places, and that I was crazy for doing so. I responded that on the contrary, I was quite sane, and that I felt we had no choice but to try and reach customers in Yesha as well.”
It turned out to be a savvy move on Levy's part, as not only Jews from towns in Yesha, but Arabs living in PA towns shop at Levy's stores, giving him so much business that the PA has several times tried to force its subjects to boycott the chain – to no avail. “We sell to everyone, regardless of race, creed or color. This is a business, and I will continue to serve all those who wish to buy from me. I will also provide work for anyone who wishes to help serve those customers, as long as they are prepared to work and provide services in the spirit of mutual respect,” he says. Besides Shaar Binyamin, Levy's Yesha stores include branches in Gush Etzion, Mishor Adumim, and Beitar Ilit.
Levy's “Jewish capitalism” extends to his business practices as well, including discounting, not only as a means of pulling customers into the store, but as a means of helping lower-income families stretch their food-shopping shekels. “I work hard to make sure that the total bill a family can expect to pay for their food costs is between 20% and 25% lower here than in other stores,” he says. As a result, the chain runs specials, especially around the holidays; last Rosh HaShanah, Rami Levy stores charged customers only one shekel per kilo for chicken, apples and honey!
Of course, he says, he wants to make a profit – and he does. But it's important not to forget the human aspect of business relations, Levy says. “I try to help out the customer, enabling him to buy products he wants that he may not have been able to afford. Profit is important – I have to pay the bills – but helping out others and giving the customer a good feeling is also important.”
Levy's “neshama” capitalism was also evident when he tendered a bid to buy the Tuv-Ta'am chain several years ago. Had he succeeded, Levy says, his first order of business would have been to “reform” the chain – closing it on Shabbat, and ridding it of the pork products it is now known for. One of the reasons the deal fell through, he says, is because he wasn't sure he would be able to implement those changes. “On principle, I will not do business with someone who works on Shabbat; I own a lot of property, and I do not rent out space to businesses that operate on Shabbat.”
Levy has been in the grocery business since 1996, and today the chain has 21 branches, mostly in Jerusalem – but with branches in Haifa, Afula, Be'ersheva, and points in between, Rami Levy is quickly becoming a national phenomenon. Besides groceries and real estate, Levy has also dipped his toe into textiles, with his Yafiz clothing store chain – and the Rami Levy supermarkets are now big enough to support their own house brand, called, appropriately enough, “Hamotag” (“The Brand”).
Clearly he knows what he's doing, but despite his success, Levy says that “I remain the same person I was when I started, and I always will, regardless of how much money I make and how many businesses I have. My success really belongs to everyone who works here – if I didn't have a good staff that was willing to cooperate with my goals, I wouldn't have come this far.” So what's the secret of his success? “Success, regardless of who you are or what you do, means treating other people properly,” he says. “A business cannot succeed unless it has values and respect for others.”