Israel faced many challenges in 1991, from Iraq firing Scud missiles into Israel during the First Gulf War to immigrants pouring in from the collapsing Soviet Union, putting a strain on Israel’s economy.
Jewish organizations in the United States wanted to help.
“The belief was that for the aliyah, the immigration, to be successful, charities could put food in the refugees’ mouths and roofs over their heads,” said Tom Glaser, the founder and former president of the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce, Southeast Region, which is now Conexx. “For the immigration to be successful, the Israeli economy needed to expand sufficiently to provide job opportunities for new Israelis.”
The Chamber was founded in 1992 and, with Glaser at the helm, began looking for ways to create jobs while helping Israel build international business connections.
“In the beginning, nobody really had much idea about what we were setting out to do,” Glaser said.
Convincing American businesses to invest in Israel was tough at first. The country’s unemployment rate was high, and the images of missile attacks were fresh in people’s minds. But Glaser and his team started to make inroads. He credits the Atlanta Jewish community for stepping up to help.
Two big wins in the early years paved the road for future success. A Jewish dentist connected Glaser with BellSouth, and the telecommunications company earned the opportunity to set up Israel’s second cellular phone network in 1994. That same year, Home Depot earned recognition from the Chamber for importing do-it-yourself products from Israel.
The willingness of organizations such as Home Depot to work with Israel helped persuade others in the Atlanta area to invest in Israel.
“Atlanta wasn’t what it is now as a major center of investment,” Glaser said. “But we did have these corporate players who were leaders in their sectors. As we got more success stories and testimonials, people started believing and listening and saying they needed to meet the Chamber.”
Over the years, Atlanta, as well as the rest of the Southeast, gained a reputation for building corporate partnerships even as Israel’s economy was growing.
The highly skilled workers who arrived in the early 1990s were leading the charge. Israel’s economy was fostering innovators, and it was growing into a country that embraced technology.
“In the early ’90s, the Atlanta Jewish community looked at Israel in a paternalistic way,” Glaser said. “Nobody expected our program to help Atlanta.”
But Israel’s economic successes led companies to expand outside the country, and scores of them have found homes in the Southeast. The deals and partnerships between businesses in the region and Israel have included mergers and acquisitions in both directions, such as Tel Aviv-based Verint Systems purchasing Roswell-based Witness Systems in 2007 and Atlanta-based Global Management Technologies in 2011, Alpharetta-based McKesson buying Israeli company Medcon in 2005, Duluth-based NCR acquiring Ra’anana-based Retalix in 2013, and Alpharetta’s EndoChoice merging with Caesarea’s Peer Medical in 2013.
Conexx has facilitated high-level business missions from the Southeast to Israel, including trips with the past two governors of Georgia, Sonny Perdue and Nathan Deal, and former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
Today, Israel is known as the Start-Up Nation, and Conexx continues to build connections between Israel and the Southeast. Glaser retired in 2013, but Conexx honors his contributions each year by presenting the Tom Glaser Leadership Award, which in March went to Israeli entrepreneur and inventor Benny Landa.
Israel and Atlanta are connected now in a way that many thought was impossible a quarter-century ago.
“We don’t look at Israel in a paternalistic way anymore,” Glaser said. “We are aligned with Israel because Israel is important to the American economy. It’s a true partnership now. It’s a very satisfying relationship.”