Food firm with a big appetite

Despite the recession, business is booming for Ofra Strauss, head of Israel’s second-largest food group. The secret of success? Being a woman.

By Simon Griver, October 7, 2010
Ofra Strauss

Ofra Strauss

Ofra Strauss is a woman of influence. In 2009, she was ranked 12th in the Financial Times list of top businesswomen around the world.

Strauss Group's new corporate headquarters is in an industrial zone in Petach Tikvah, where orange groves have been recently razed to make way for office developments in a neat marker of Israel's changing economic horizons.

Ms Strauss laughs modestly when asked how she felt about the FT listing. She says: "I think it probably shows that too few women head major companies around the world.

"But it is an honour and it is important that we women use our position as a platform to influence for good."

In addition to being chair of Strauss Group, Israel's second largest food company, Ms Strauss heads Jasmine, which encourages female business initiatives, and has worked with Cherie Blair to promote the empowerment of women among Israel's Bedouins. Earlier this year, she was the guest of another former Prime Minister's wife, Sarah Brown, at a conference in Number 10 Downing Street to discuss female empowerment in business.

Tasty deals: Strauss bought chocolate chain Max Brenner

Tasty deals: Strauss bought chocolate chain Max Brenner

She says: "Women have a contribution to make to the economy she says, and they need strengthening and the chance to prove their capabilities. Research by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company showed that companies headed by women survived the recession more successfully because they took less risks.

"Men and women have different strengths and I think it is important that any company's senior management has a mixture of both sexes."

Ms Strauss has had the opportunity to put her theories into practice and the business results have been impressive.

Despite the global recession, Strauss saw 2009 sales climb by 2 per cent to NIS 6.373 billion (about £1.1 billion). There was growth in both domestic and international sales, which now represent 47 per cent of revenue. Profits grew 7.8 per cent last year.

She is the third generation in a family firm whose story embodies the Zionist dream. Her grandparents, Dr Richard and Hilde Strauss, fled Germany and set up a small farm in Nahariya, northern Israel, in 1936, selling cheese and other dairy products from their cowshed.

Her father Michael grew Strauss into a national brand synonymous with a series of ice cream, yoghurt and cheese products.

Ms Strauss has transformed the business into an international company. She consolidated the core dairy business on the domestic market and, after acquiring and merging with local coffee and confectionary producer Elite, Strauss has become the world's fifth largest manufacturer of coffee, and diversified into Mediterranean dips like hummus through its Sabra brand. A factory for these products was opened in Virginia in June.

"We are unique in Israel for a business of this size in that we have remained family-owned through to the third generation."

Food products are the most vulnerable to boycotts but despite media headlines Ms Strauss sees no increasing hostility to Israel. "On the contrary," she says, "interest in our products around the world has never been higher. I don't recall ever doing so much international business in the past. We see most of our future growth on international markets."

Does she see Strauss emulating Teva Pharmaceuticals and becoming a major international company, headquartered in Israel but with virtually all its sales overseas? "Yes why not?" she says with the look of a person that does not make such statements lightly.

With an LL.B. from Tel Aviv University, Ms Strauss, 50, joined the family firm in 1989 after a spell working in marketing for Estée Lauder in New York. The Israeli media reported recently that she separated from her second husband, the businessman Adi Kaizman, 38.

She has four children from her first husband, Dan Lahat, the son of former Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat.

Strauss has expanded into new product areas with its acquisition of the Max Brenner chocolate company and Tami4 water purification company. Tami4 water dispensers are sold throughout the UK.

Ms Strauss's management style is to delegate responsibility while making the policy decisions herself. Hence she serves as an active chairperson rather than CEO or president. This also gives her more time to devote to philanthropic endeavours, and her example contradicts the oft-repeated claim that Israeli businesspeople are less engaged in philanthropy than their diaspora counterparts.

In addition to her feminist activities with Jasmine, she is chairperson of WIZO Israel's fundraising campaign, chairperson of the Adopt a Soldier Foundation, a member of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors and a Jewish Agency executive. In these latter positions she strives to bridge the growing gap between Israel and the diaspora.

She says: "I am meeting diaspora Jews all the time and we are developing programmes to prevent distancing. We have a joint history but we cannot take matters for granted. Israel is home for all of us and part of the beauty of the country is its social diversity.

"This diversity is also a challenge and we must develop an economy that is more socially inclusive for men and women, all immigrant groups, the ultra-Orthodox and the Arab minority. We have a lot of problems here but I am optimistic that we can overcome them."

Last updated: 11:45am, October 7 2010