Sylvan invests in Israeli firm Deal is announced while Maryland trade delegation is in Israel


November 07, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- When Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. President Douglas L. Becker first proposed doing business in Israel, the board of his billion-dollar Maryland company balked. It was September 1996 when deadly clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers dominated the nightly television news.

"We don't even want to hear about investing in an Israeli company," Becker said his board members told him.

A bloodied peace process did not dissuade Becker. It only delayed his plans.

This week, while accompanying Gov. Parris N. Glendening on a trade mission to Israel, Becker announced a $3 million investment in the largest private education company in Israel, Kiddum Group.

"The market was very attractive," said Becker, whose billion dollar firm operates in 100 countries. "This is a culture rooted in education. I wanted to come to Israel to do the Kiddum deal. Knowing the governor was coming we decided to pull the trigger."

The peace process is still floundering. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators only recently renewed their talks -- at the urging of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and after a summer in which suicide bombers killed 24 people in Jerusalem.

But the political situation didn't dissuade dozens of Israeli business executives and venture capitalists from talking up their companies and their interests at a reception given by Glendening and the Maryland/Israel Development Center, the nonprofit trade promotion group jointly funded by the state and the Baltimore Jewish community.

"Most investors are pretty smart -- they take the long-term view," Glendening said. "Either you get your share or you're left behind. The world economy is increasingly indifferent to national boundaries."

The 23 Maryland businessmen, educators and Baltimore Jewish leaders who joined the governor dined on Moroccan food and sampled Israeli wines while trading business cards and contacts. They represented industries that also are growth sectors in Israel -- communications, health care, high tech and information systems.

Last year, Maryland exported $62 million worth of goods to Israel. About 18 percent of that total represents electronic and electrical equipment. Lockheed Martin Corp. and Micros Systems Inc. are among the Maryland firms doing business here.

Uzia Galil, chairman of Elron Electronic Industries, a leading Israeli high-tech company, was a co-host of Wednesday's dinner in the old port city of Jaffa. He sat between the governor and Dr. Jo Ann E. Argersinger, provost of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Galil's partner in an innovative education project.

Elron and UMBC signed a memorandum of understanding this week to establish an Institute for Global Electronic Commerce. Galil plans to involve his alma mater, the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, in the venture.

Argersinger said research being done by two UMBC faculty members got her interested in the field. She explored the educational and business possibilities, researched the market, talked with industry executives and the educational pioneers in Europe.

As conceived, the project would offer four online courses in electronic commerce with students participating from Catonsville, Copenhagen and Paris, she said. The institute's research arm would develop business opportunities, Argersinger said.

The governor's weeklong trip combined meetings with business leaders and key political figures with visits to important Israeli sites.

Glendening has visited Israel twice before; but this is his first as governor. The state paid for his trip and that of an economic development aide, Tripp Burgunder. The business executives accompanying him paid their own way, according to Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.

The Maryland trade mission arrived in Israel as the country marked the second anniversary of the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Glendening laid a memorial wreath on Rabin's grave during his first full day in Israel.

And while much of the trip is jammed with business-related events, meetings with a shipping line executive and the president of El Al Airlines, Glendening had a chance to spend the night at the home of Meir Nitzan, the mayor of Rishon LeZion. Glendening met Nitzan when the Tel Aviv suburb became a sister city of Prince George's County.

Business relationships often begin on a personal note.

In a meeting with Israeli Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, the governor recalled his days as county executive and efforts made to resettle 20 Soviet Jewish families. Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik who heads a political party of Russian immigrants, remembered the evening he spent in Baltimore planning a rally for Soviet Jewry.

As the two began discussing Maryland's high-tech businesses, a note was slipped to Sharansky.

"Excuse me," the former Soviet dissident politely interrupted. "The prime minister needs me for one moment on the telephone."

"I would recommend you do that," the governor quipped.

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