Meir Nissensohn has been with IBM since graduating from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology decades ago.
Now chairman of IBM Israel, Nissensohn, 68, started out as a computer programmer, then worked his way up the corporate ladder. At one point he headed IBM activities in 10 countries in Europe. Sixteen years ago he became the CEO of IBM Israel. Nissensohn, who made aliyah with his family from Argentina in 1955, will be honored with AJC Westchester’s Corporate Leadership Award on May 30 at the Ritz Carlton in White Plains. He spoke to The Jewish Week from Israel about IBM and the country’s high-tech industry.
Q: How long has IBM been in Israel?
A: We opened our first office here in 1949. We were the very first multinational company to establish offices in Israel. It was a normal commercial office. We had been invited by the Israeli government to come and help with their first census in Israel. Today we have over 2,000 employees in 14 offices located in several locations.
What kind of offices do you have in Israel?
We have three laboratories — one for research and two for development. Our research lab is IBM’s largest research lab outside of the United States, and half of our employees are in R&D. I think that outside the U.S. there are only seven or eight countries in which we have research facilities.
I understand you also established a scientific center in Tel Aviv.
That was in 1972. In the beginning it was tiny with only about 10 people. It was to work with scientists and others in the country on projects for the benefit of Israel — things like agriculture, water preservation, control of aquifers and medicine.
And you also created a global technology unit in Israel.
It’s a special unit unique to Israel to encourage cooperation between the Israeli high-tech industry and IBM at a global level. This unit was established 10 years ago, and since then we have cooperated with a very large number of Israeli companies for the benefit of those companies, IBM and our customers around the world. This is a win-win formula.
It means that small Israeli companies that have the perfect solutions to problems can team up with us. We then go to our customers around the world with the Israeli solutions and give the Israeli companies the global reach they didn’t have. It has been a very, very successful activity — we sell the solutions as well as the Israeli companies because they provide the needed services.
What kind of work has IBM Israel turned out over the years for its parent company?
We contributed to many of the products that IBM has on the market — a large number. Our people have contributed significantly. I don’t remember the number, but IBM has a significant number of patents from the development and research work done in Israel.
What do you think is the reason that since the 1990s Israel has been the most vibrant high-tech cluster outside the United States?
We have only human resources and we have to exploit them. And of course you have the culture — an entrepreneurship culture. People are not afraid to take risks and drive for the best.
You also have security needs. You have many youngsters who during their army service are given a high-tech education and are put to work on the most advanced projects. And after three or four years, they go out to the market. This is a fantastic machine that produces young, energetic, very well prepared Israelis who go into the marketplace every year. They are very ambitious, they learned a lot and have established their own companies.
The military has advanced projects with these young kids. I don’t know if we planned to do it this way, but it’s good for the rest of the economy. Every year you get an influx of young people who are very capable, highly skilled and experienced. What else could you ask for?
It is said that in the years 2002-2005, about 43-44 percent of employees in R&D companies here worked in subsidiaries owned by foreign multinational companies.
We are among the top five multinational companies here, and having a research lab gives us a qualitative element. The importance of that is very high — and we were first. Many companies now in Israel saw us here and asked us how easy it was to operate in Israel. We were the example — if a company like IBM was operating there, it would be OK for them. We were extremely important in encouraging others to come to Israel. … High-tech is the growth engine of Israel, and I expect it to be in the future.
This is an edited transcript.