Israel's top-paid octogenarian

David Azrieli is 89, earns £370,000 a month and has no plans to retire.


By Simon Griver, June 2, 2011
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Property developer David Azrieli

Property developer David Azrieli

If Canadian Business's Rich 100 is to be believed, 2010 was a bad year for David Azrieli. The property developer slipped from being Canada's eighth wealthiest man in 2009, to 11th last year, and saw his net worth plunge 21 per cent to $2.93 billion (£1.75 billion).

Yet, when interviewed by the JC in his office at the top of Tel Aviv's Azrieli Centre - his flagship property project and greatest achievement in a business career spanning 60 years - Mr Azrieli paints a more bullish picture.

In 2010, the Azrieli Group, the country's largest property company, reported a 12 per cent rise in profit to around £155 million. With a monthly salary of £370,000, Mr Azrieli was the third highest-paid executive of a publicly-traded company in Israel in 2010.

The man who brought shopping malls to Israel turned 89 last month, making him the country's highest earning pensioner. Surely he could retire? No chance. In fact, he is somewhat irked by the suggestion that it might be time to step down as chairman of Azrieli Group.

David Azrieli’s eponymous centre

David Azrieli’s eponymous centre

He says: "Retirement. Is there such a word? I am still deeply involved in every aspect of a project from deciding the location, developing the architectural concept and the actual design, and through to the building."

Besides, he is still learning. "Life is dynamic, it is never static. A day in which you have not learned something new is a lost day."

An architect, he received his MSc in architecture from Carlton University in Ottawa when he was 75.

Born in Poland in 1922, he escaped to Palestine in 1942. After beginning architectural studies at the Technion and fighting in the War of Independence, he settled in Canada where he graduated in the arts from the University of Montreal and then set about making made his fortune.

His success has been based on an ability to develop unfashionable locations such as Barrie, Ontario near Toronto, and Gatineau, Quebec near Ottawa. This is a talent he has used to great effect in Israel. "I never really left Israel. I was always back here for conferences. In 1983, the mayor of Ramat Gan showed me a piece of waste land and I decided to use my experience with shopping malls in Canada to build Israel's first mall, the Ayalon Mall. The major banks had just collapsed and there was three-figure annual inflation, and they told me it would never work in Israel. But I proved them wrong."

Not only has Mr Azrieli pioneered malls in Israel including the first mall in Jerusalem and in the Negev in Beer Sheva, plus shopping centres in Modi'in, Netanya, Haifa, Givatayim and Herzliya, he also invented the Hebrew word for the mall. He recalls: "I wanted to get away from the use of non-Hebrew words for everything modern so I put together the words for shopping (knia) and parking (chanion) and came up with 'kanion'."

In the 1980s, there was a joke in the Diaspora that the only way to make a small fortune in Israel was to come with a big fortune. "I proved them wrong on that too. I have always been proving them wrong. I built a mall in Jerusalem and they said Jerusalemites only go to markets. I built one in Beer Sheva and they said there would not be enough customers in the Negev. I built a mall in Modi'in when they said the new city would never succeed. They are all profitable."

But the most daring project of all was the Azrieli Centre in Tel Aviv - three high-rise office towers that contain 1.6 million square feet of commercial space. It is the most distinctive feature of Tel Aviv's high-rise skyline. "Our criteria is trophy buildings in central locations. All our acquisitions are made for the long term, and therefore temporarily fluctuations in markets are not a major concern. I have always retained ownership of my projects. I develop and build and keep them as income-producing assets."

In addition to its property holdings, which include 16 malls, Azrieli Group owns 4.8 per cent of Bank Leumi, 20 per cent of the Leumicard credit card company, the Sonol petrol station chain, and Tambour paints. Last year, the Azriel Group held the largest ever IPO on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, raising £450 million.

Mr Azrieli insists that despite the global recession, business is flourishing. "My businesses have always leapt forward in bad times because I pursue conservative policies and I do not leverage debt." He owns a property in the UK in Leeds, leased to the British government, but admits "the UK is a market I've never really penetrated."

Perhaps because he deemed Israel to be the safer option. "Israel was hardly affected at all by the recession and we took advantage of worries to buy existing malls. We open malls in Akko and Kiryat Ata later this year." He is also building the Azrieli Holon Business Centre - the country's second-largest commercial project after the Azrieli Centre in Tel Aviv.

He is deeply committed to philanthropy. He splits his time between Canada and Herzliya, where he lives with his wife. They have four children. His daughter Danna is deputy chairman of the Azrieli Group. But Mr Azrieli certainly does not sound like a man about to hand over the reins. "It is important never to lose the excitement and love for what you are doing." He clearly has not.

    Last updated: 10:53am, June 2 2011