Israel Bonds thrives during the pandemic

Israel Bonds thrives during the pandemic

Retiring CEO Israel Maimon and local head Lee Schwartz tell how it exceeded its goals

Israel Maimon is retiring as Israel Bonds’ CEO.
Israel Maimon is retiring as Israel Bonds’ CEO.

Israel Maimon is getting ready to retire from his position as CEO of the Development Corporation of Israel, otherwise known as Israel Bonds. (Bonds CEOs are hired for five-year stints.)

The Israeli executive, who has lived in Manhattan during his years at the helm of Bonds, recently spoke about his time in office. During the last two years, while the pandemic turned Bonds business upside down, he found himself having to rise to a situation unlike any he’d ever faced before. But he wasn’t put off by the challenge covid represented. He’d already overcome more than one challenge in his life.

Mr. Maimon honed his leadership skills during four years on active duty in the Israel Defense Forces, starting in 1984 and ending as the commander of the Golani Brigade, as well as 14 years in the reserve. Then he learned the art of politics when he served as government secretary, a position similar in scope to that of White House chief of staff, in the governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert between 2003 and 2007.

Beginning in March 2020, Mr. Maimon’s skills and experience were called upon to figure out a way to meet Bonds’ financial goals for the year, although its traditional business model was severely and negatively impacted by covid. On every level, national to local, the pandemic meant no more parties, no more fund-raisers, no more face-to-face meetings with people who wanted to buy Israel Bonds. There were no missions to Israel and there were no galas.

Given the severe contraction of economies the world over, and people’s reluctance to invest in any kind of securities, even Israel Bonds, it was hard for Mr. Maimon and his team to see how they were going to meet the year’s goal of $1.1 billion.

Mr. Maimon knew Bonds could and would find a way, no matter how difficult it would be in the face of weakened economies and investor fears, to achieve the sales goal that the finance ministry had set for it.

Bonds had been meeting its targets since 1951. In that year, when Israel was barely three years old, its founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, conceived of the idea to float bonds to meet the financial burdens of the infant state. In the beginning, that meant building infrastructure and absorbing the influx of immigrants.

Mr. Maimon knew that even if the $1.1 billion goal for 2020 was met, that amount of money still wouldn’t be enough. “There was a lot that was unknown about the virus; how to control it, what to do until we could control it,” Mr. Maimon said. “These were questions we didn’t know the answers to. Finding ways to pay for coronavirus-related equipment, including ventilators, more hospital beds, more research, as well as testing, we knew we had to do it.” And so, rather than suggesting to the finance ministry that it reduce the annual goal because it would be so hard to meet, he proposed to do just the opposite and raise the amount by $400 million. That would not just meet the needs about which they were aware, but the ones that would present themselves later.

Mr. Maimon and his team went to work restructuring Bonds’ decades-long business model, even as the organization did whatever it could to keep individual investors engaged.

That’s where Bonds local offices came into play, and where they stepped up.

“There was no question that our campaign strategy had to change,” Lee Schwartz said. He is the executive director of Israel Bonds’ New Jersey office, which covers Bergen, Passaic, Essex, Union, Monmouth, and Somerset counties, as well New York State from Rockland County north to Albany. “We could no longer depend upon physical events to meet our clientele,” Mr. Schwartz said. He and his team began to rely on virtual events to stay in touch with clients. “We began to hold regular Zoom meetings starting in May,” he said.

Lee Schwartz is head of Bonds’ New Jersey office.

Israel Bonds’ virtual events garnered wide attendance, not just from New Jersey and New York, but from everywhere, once geography was not an issue, Mr. Schwartz said. “People who were interested in Israel Bonds were looking for something to do — and they found it with our events.”

Many of the virtual gatherings had high-profile speakers, including Avi Issacharoff, co-creator of “Fauda”; Shira Haas, star of “Unorthodox” and “Shtisel”; memoirist Deborah Feldman, who wrote “Unorthodox”; and Stephen Flatow of West Orange, whose daughter, Alisa Flatow, was murdered in a suicide bus bombing in Israel in 1995. “The events were a huge success and helped us meet our goals,” Mr. Schwartz said. “We tied participation in the events to a bond purchase.”

While Mr. Schwartz and his team focused on working with people who were already invested in Israel Bonds, and also to broaden the base of supporters by attracting new buyers, Mr. Maimon concentrated on reaching out to institutional investors, and doing so on a larger scale than ever.

“Israel Bonds have always been sold to small institutions, such as banks and insurance companies,” Mr. Maimon said. But as the pandemic continued, Bonds aggressively sought out new investors in many kinds of institutions, including municipalities and counties across the United States. “Some states had already been investors, as much because of a desire to support Israel as to make fiduciarily responsible investments,” he added. But now Bonds began looking beyond its usual investor cohort. It reached out to show the value of Israel Bonds to state governments that had no history with the organization, as well as those who that already had. Of the decision-makers in the 26 states that Bonds professionals and volunteer leaders approached — states that include Florida, Ohio, Arkansas, and New York —not one said no, he reported.

“Of the states that had bought Israel Bonds as investments in the past, we encouraged them to buy more,” Mr. Maimon said. “We were thrilled by the response.” In fact, Bonds was able to sell to even more counties and municipalities than before. What convinced many of them to buy was what had convinced many before them. Israel Bonds is a safe investment.

“The State of New Jersey is an investor in Israel Bonds,” Mr. Schwartz said. “Israel Bonds professionals work directly with the state. Every administration since the McGreevy administration — Codey, Corzine, Christie, and Murphy — have invested in Israel Bonds.”

Israel Bonds always has been successful in meeting the goals the finance ministry set for it. According to information on its website, worldwide sales have exceeded $46 billion since 1951, when the first bonds were issued. Working at the national and local levels last year and overcoming odds that might have seemed insurmountable to other organizations, Bonds raised $1.5 billion, or $400 million more than the original target and just as Mr. Maimon had promised.

In the New Jersey office, Mr. Schwartz said that 2020 was the best year ever. “We showed a 28 percent increase in sales. Strong lay leadership made a big difference.

“All along our lay leadership demonstrated their interest in strengthening Israel through Bonds and were vested in achieving success for Bonds in the region.”

“The consistently impressive results of the New Jersey Bonds effort, which have already surpassed $91 million in sales for 2021, are a testament to the community’s commitment to the Bonds mission,” Mr. Maimon said.

Mr. Maimon has spent the better part of his life in public service to the State of Israel. “It goes back to my nature, which is to serve and lead,” he said, as he reflected on his retirement. “Everything I have ever done has to do with my knowing there are challenges that Israel has to face. When I have had an opportunity to serve Israel and to do what I can to meet its challenges, that is what I have done.”

As his tenure ends, the 55-year-old Mr. Maimon has looked back with pride as well as a bit of regret. “I wish I could have stayed longer,” he said. “Some of the processes we put in place are not complete. But it’s been a great journey. I know I’m leaving Bonds in great hands. My successor, Dani Nave, has worked in the public and private sectors and will know how to represent Israel in the most distinguished way.”

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