Believing in good leadership, not the trappings of power – 03.07.2012
A mix of bike riding, love for Opera music, transparent and ethical leadership, insurance and a childhood in colonial Africa emerge while talking to Zahal Levy, the president and co-founder of MediHelp. In his interview for Romania-Insider.com, Levy talks about his business ventures and his belief in the importance of good leadership, something which he thinks Romania lacks.
By Corina Chirileasa
During the two and a half weeks on the back of his motorcycle, while riding across South Eastern Europe, Zahal Levy didn’t feel the need to disconnect from his business. While passing through Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece and its islands, together with a group of other motorcycle riders, the Israeli business man, who brought Euromedic to Romania, stayed close to the business that now takes most of his time – the medical insurance broker MediHelp.
This was not a one and only trip across Europe. Zahal Levy has had many other adventures on Europe’s roads. In Romania, however, not so much, not because of the poor quality of the roads, but rather because of the hectic driving, not to be found in neighboring Bulgaria and Hungary, where MediHelp also operates and where Zahal Levy flies in for business. Back in his homeland Israel, where he has the same bike model as the one he owns in Romania, biking is not a challenge: in four hours he can cross the country.
In perfect English with a surprising British accent, the Israeli who was brought up in an English language school in Africa in the 60s, where he father was working as a diplomat, speaks about the qualities he found in Romania when deciding to invest here for the first time in the late 90s. From his meeting room at the top floor of a small office building close to Victorie Square – the meeting room that he uses sometimes if he wants a moment for himself – Zahal Levy talks about Romanian society, blessed with many talents but cursed against moving full steam ahead, like a train without a head, because of the lack of leadership. “This country could have been number one in Europe, I think, if it was better led,” the businessman says.
Back in his military service in the Israel Navy, Zahal Levy learned how to become a good leader. The military service and his father’s example shaped the leader he is now. “I have the tendency to trust my people and give them authority. On the one hand, I trust and support them as much as I can, and on the other, I am very strict. Some of them would say that I am very strict and demanding,” he says launghing.
An accomplished and confident man, Levy keeps his door open to colleagues. He shares the office and places little value on the ornaments that might make some feel they’re the boss. “I don’t need all these rituals to keep my position. I don’t think that luxury, leather couches and satin carpets are the story of success of this company. The story of success of this company is based on good products sold to good people that get good services which they pay good money for. My desk does not have anything to do with the equation,” he says.
He believes in transparent leadership, in leading by values and in creating a consensus so that people believe in the direction. In the Army, “I learned to work under pressure and, unfortunately, under fire. Many situations changed my personality forever.”
The Israeli entrepreneur founded over ten companies after leaving the army and finishing his studies. He was the co-founder of insurance companies and management consultancy companies in Israel, co-founder of SOS Medical in Romania and the person who brought Euromedic to Romania, setting up the local subsidiary. He could have stayed in the Navy, but chose against it. “I did not want to spend all my life on the sea and I wanted to make business.”
The military experience, which is mandatory for men and women in Israel, contrasts sharply for most to a love of art, something that Levy inherited from his mother, who was a ‘hunter of beautiful things’, he says. Much like her, Zahal likes to collect beautiful objects. And he continued the family tradition and picked up on the family love of Opera music. This is intimately knit into his being, to the point that Levy’s long lost talent and the chance to have been a composer and conductor in an Operatic orchestra is a cause of sorrow. “I could have been a great musician. In the next life!” he says.
In this life, he chose to make a difference on another level. “I think I am very very rich, if richness means you are happy and content with what you have, and you have people who appreciate you and who love you, and you can show what you did in your life that mattered to somebody,” Levy says when asked whether he considers himself a rich man.
“We saved lives, we built medical infrastructure. We have done humanitarian projects. This is richness. Richness is not about how many houses I have and how much money I have in the bank. I am not a poor man. But the real value is that you feel it mattered that you came to this world and that you will leave it with a smile and with a feeling of accomplishment,” he says.
Owner of a house on the beach in Bulgaria and one in Romania and knowing that Romania is just a temporary home for him, Levy thinks about the time when he will return to Israel, where he belongs. “At some point I will want to go back to Israel and close this chapter. I know I have had my contribution here, I created jobs, I changed the map of healthcare here. But there will be a time to go back to where I belong, and I belong to Israel,” he says passionately.
The same passion sparks in his eyes when talking about his two daughters and his son, soon to study medicine, with whom he says he has a great relationship. Children and his business enterprises are the biggest accomplishments in Zahal Levy’s life.
The Romanian leg of his life journey taught him much about himself and gave him the opportunity to do big scale projects, which would have probably not been possible in Israel, where the level of development is already high. But he is unhappy with the corruption and the impossible bureaucracy in Romania, and sometimes with the low level of integrity and unethical behavior. “A lot of it also comes from the lack of leadership, which is the number one problem of this country,” he says.
Despite his so called ‘aluminum personality’- getting angry very quickly and calming down fast – and his tendency to criticize everything – in a positive way, he says-, he managed to get people on his side in business over the long term. He perceives Romanians as nice and friendly and hasn’t changed his mind about it ever since choosing to turn the clean page that Romania was back in the late 90s.
By Corina Chirileasa, firstname.lastname@example.org