Sunday, May 16, 2010

Haim Saban : Power Rangers, power broker

Alexandria-born Hollywood mogul Haim Saban (photo: Martin Schoeller)

The man who brought the world Power Rangers and takes a keen interest in politics has humble origins in Egypt. The New Yorker has this profile of Haim Saban: (with thanks: Eliyahu)

Saban is not given to modest ambitions. Sixty-five years old, with a broad, dynamic countenance and slicked-down wavy black hair, he is known in Los Angeles as the man who brought the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers from Japan to America; the chairman and part owner of Univision, the nation’s leading Spanish-language media company; a staunch supporter of Israel (he has dual citizenship); and one of the largest individual donors to the Democratic Party.

“Haim is a force of nature,” his friend Barry Meyer, the chairman and C.E.O. of Warner Bros., said. As a youth in Israel, Saban attended an agricultural boarding school where, he says, immigrants like his parents sent children they could not afford to feed. When he was expelled for being a troublemaker, he began attending a night school, where the principal told him, “You’re not cut out for academic studies; you’re cut out for making money.” The prediction seemed to come true in 2001, when Rupert Murdoch and Saban sold their joint venture, Fox Family Worldwide, to Michael Eisner, the C.E.O. of Disney: Saban made one and a half billion dollars. It was—and still is, he points out—the biggest cash transaction by an individual in the history of Hollywood. In March, Forbes estimated his net worth at $3.3 billion.

Perhaps Saban’s greatest asset over the years has been his remarkable ability to cultivate, charm, and manipulate people. “Being charming and analytical is quite a combination,” said Shimon Peres, the President of Israel, who has been a close friend of Saban’s for more than twenty years. “Charmers from time to time get lost.” But Saban, he continued, “isn’t floating in the air.” As a way of disguising his shrewdness and his mental agility, Saban is often self-deprecating; he describes himself as a “former cartoon schlepper.” English is one of his six languages, and his adversaries are sometimes disarmed by his linguistic stumbles, but he uses words very skillfully.

Although Saban has lived in the United States for nearly thirty years, he remains deeply connected to Israel. He watches Israeli news shows, via satellite, throughout the day, and is a devout fan of the Ha’gashash Ha’chiver (Pale Pathfinder), a popular Israeli comedy troupe that performed for decades. “He knows every sketch of theirs by heart, and he uses their language very often when he speaks Hebrew,” his friend Dan Gillerman, the former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations, said. His hundred-year-old mother and his brother live in Israel, and Saban travels there frequently. Through the years, one of his closest advisers has always been an Israeli and, in business meetings with others on his team, the two would occasionally slip into a side conversation in Hebrew.

He remains keenly interested in the world of business, but he is most proud of his role as political power broker. His greatest concern, he says, is to protect Israel, by strengthening the United States-Israel relationship. At a conference last fall in Israel, Saban described his formula. His “three ways to be influential in American politics,” he said, were: make donations to political parties, establish think tanks, and control media outlets. In 2002, he contributed seven million dollars toward the cost of a new building for the Democratic National Committee—one of the largest known donations ever made to an American political party. That year, he also founded the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, D.C. He considered buying The New Republic, but decided it wasn’t for him. He also tried to buy Time and Newsweek, but neither was available. He and his private-equity partners acquired Univision in 2007, and he has made repeated bids for the Los Angeles Times.

By far his most important relationship is with Bill and Hillary Clinton. In 2002, Saban donated five million dollars to Bill Clinton’s Presidential library, and he has given more than five million dollars to the Clinton Foundation. In February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a major policy address at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, co-sponsored by the Saban Center. And last November Bill Clinton was a featured speaker at the Saban Forum, an annual conference attended by many high-level Israeli and U.S. government officials, which was held in Jerusalem. Ynon Kreiz, an Israeli who was the chairman and chief executive of a Saban company and Saban’s closest associate for many years, attended the conference, and when I commented that his former boss appeared to be positively smitten with Bill Clinton, Kreiz replied, grinning broadly, “No! No! I remember once Haim was talking to me on the phone, and he said in Hebrew, without changing his tone so Clinton would have no idea he was speaking about him, ‘The President of the United States, wearing his boxers, is coming down the stairs, and I am going to have to stop talking and go have breakfast with him.’ ”

In the summer of 1996, not long after Shimon Peres lost the election for Prime Minister to Benjamin Netanyahu, Peres travelled to Los Angeles and visited Saban, a major supporter, at the tall Westwood office building where he leased ten floors. Giant letters that spelled out “S-A-B-A-N” ran along its roofline. Saban had gathered a small number of associates to meet with Peres, and he began by saying that when he was living in the slums of Tel Aviv he never could have imagined what had come to pass—and then he broke off, weeping. “He was crying like a little boy, and Shimon, seated next to him, just held his hand,” a member of the group recalled.

Saban’s father had been a sales clerk in a small toy shop in Alexandria. One day, Saban says, he was doing his homework by an open window of the family’s apartment. An Egyptian soldier across the way suddenly pointed his gun at him, and called out, “You, Jew! You, Jew! Bam bam!” In 1956, after the Suez Crisis, the Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, effectively ordered Jews to leave the country. The Sabans—his parents and his grandmother, and his younger brother—immigrated to Israel, where they shared a three-room apartment with two other families, next to the old Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. Saban took on a variety of jobs; when he first arrived, he sold cactus fruit in the street, and, at the agricultural boarding school, he offered to clean manure from barns in a nearby village. Before long, he had so many customers that he became a contractor of manure cleaners, and no longer had to do the work himself.

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