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The second coming of Yossi Maiman

After some three years of effort, Merhav has made its mark in the Israeli marketplace.

The multinational group, controlled by businessman Yossi Maiman, is privately held and keeps its financial affairs highly secret. All its associates will say is that in the 27 years since Merhav's establishment, Maiman has built his wealth through a combination of daring and creativity that led him to high-risk central Asia and Latin America. Today the group has a finger in $3 billion worth of projects. It has the resources to achieve involvement of hundreds of millions in each.

Maiman was born in Germany in 1946. He grew up in Peru and achieved a Masters in economics at Ithaca's Cornell University. Later he came to Israel, worked for Mossad, quit that and established Merhav as an office-supplies leasing company. He began to offer financing services in South America, including international debt servicing using complex formulas.

Today, on top of serving as chairman of Merhav, Ampal-American Israel Corporation (Nasdaq:AMPL), and the Israel 10 Corporation (the designated operator of the Third Israeli TV Channel) - Maiman also serves as the honorary ambassador of oil refinery and as Peru's honorary consul in Israel. He is also considered a crony of Peru's president, Alejandro Toledo.

Merhav's business spans from China through Turkmenistan to Venezuela. Thegroup specializes in tailoring financing for major projects, some worth over a billion dollars. For Turkmenistan, for instance, a country devoid of credit arrangements, Merhav managed to obtain foreign-trade risk insurance from Japan, the United States, Italy, Germany and France for investments worth $1.5 billion. He also brought in multinational corporations to carry out the work. Merhav also invests itself in projects, from energy to petrochemicals to communications to hi-tech.

Helping hand from Nimrod Novik

Merhav's international connections were woven by company executive Nimrod Novik, formerly an adviser to Shimon Peres. Novik's access to key decision-makers internationally was one of Merhav's chief assets.

Another key Merhav personality is Jack Bigio of Peru, who emigrated to Israel 12 years ago. He served as Merhav's chief operating officer until the acquisition of Ampal a month ago, where he took over as CEO. His Merhav seat has yet to be filled.

Another Peruvian in the group is Leo Malamud, a former banker. He handled the group's activities in South America until deciding to move to Israel.

But Maiman wanted to come to Israel again. The group's activity here at home only began a few years ago. Its attempts to find a platform from which to do Israeli business included vain attempts to acquire control over the Paz or Delek fuel companies, and to buy out Cable & Wireless' 20% stake in the Bezeq phone company.

It became a player in Israel two years ago, when it co-launched EMG, a company meant to import Egyptian natural gas to Israel. Merhav owns 25% of the company. While Egyptian gas is not flowing to the Holy Land, Merhav meanwhile took over a 51% stake in Ampal for $85 million, and bought a franchise to run a television station through Israel 10 Corporation.

Ampal is a great platform for business in Israel. It holds 25% of the cellular communications firm MIRS, 20% of real-estate and fuel firm Granite Hacarmel, holdings in some 40 startups including XaCCT, PowerDsine and SmartLink, and owns chunks of old-age homes and rental real-estate. It also has a piece of Coral World, which runs various marine observatories and parks around the world, 20% of the industrial company Carmel Containers, and 20% of the financial company Epsilon.

View on Israeli television

Lately Merhav has had to spend a great deal of unplanned managerial effort on Israel 10 Corporation, which it co-owns with leading businessmen Aharon Dovrat, Dov Tadmor and Alfred Akirov. So far the partnership isn't emanating the whiff of success.

Channel 10 received blistering reviews, which gave some of the partners cold feet. Another joint project, to lay submarine communications cables on both sides of the Panama canal, has encountered unexpected troubles.

Maiman is looking for a strategic international partner for Channel 10. Cronies say he's talking with two North American candidates. Meanwhile he's expected to infuse it with some $15 million, replace its CEO, bring shows that command good ratings and freeze costly in-house productions.

Maiman did rather better with Mr Shabtai Shavit, a former Mossad leader whom he poached from the Maccabi health organization to run EMG.

As the natural gas-importing endeavor failed to materialize, Shavit was rerouted to run a Merhav company devoted to exporting Israeli security knowhow. That company has done well in the post-September 11 atmosphere. In fact, say Merhav sources, Shavit's activity is the only success Merhav has had in Israel so far.

Still working hard abroad

Despite the strenuous efforts Maiman has devoted to doing fruitless business in Israel, Merhav is still working hard elsewhere. Operating in media silence, the company managed to penetrate China, working through a local firm. It has established three plants that produce dehydrated vegetables for the Japanese market, and is working on founding a baby-food plant.

Teaming up with local firms is a model that worked beautifully for Merhav in Turkey and Egypt. In Egypt Merhav teamed with another former intelligence officer, Hussein K. Salem. Together they established the Midor oil refinery, in Alexandria, at an investment of about $1.25 billion. Later Merhav's stake was bought out by the Egyptian government.

Merhav's Turkish adventure is still young. It is working with companies with which it cooperated in Asian projects. Nor has the company abandoned Venezuela, where it is running a water project worth hundreds of millions. It also runs the country's biggest cable television network. In Turkmenistan, Merhav is involved in a $1.5 billion energy project plus $400 million worth of other deals. But while it wheels and deals around the world, it isn't giving up on Israel.

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