In a Former Life: Itzhak Fisher
Itzhak Fisher, 43
Present life: Cofounder and CEO of RSL Communications, a $1.4-billion telecommunications company with 2,500 employees in 21 countries. Headquartered in New York City, RSL was formed in 1994 and went public in 1997.
Former life: Treasurer of the Likud party, in Israel, from 1992 to 1994. He left the post to start RSL just two years before his party's candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu, was elected prime minister. "When I became treasurer, it was right after the party lost the '92 campaign. Likud had a debt of over $10 million. We renegotiated with all the banks, getting longer-term payment agreements so the party could function," says Fisher.
"The first major test we had was municipal elections, which in Israel all run at the same time. We had a close campaign in Beersheba, and the candidate pressured us for additional funds -- something like 30% over his budget -- to make one last push. He wanted to canvass every house in the city. But we saw from polls there were certain neighborhoods totally against him and said we'd only give him 5% over his budget, convincing him to focus only on the undecided. Before he won, he gave us hell."
Lessons learned: How the right information can help target your promotional spending. "Candidates have the notion that you have to reach as many people as possible -- they want magnitudes. We have the same issue at RSL every quarter," Fisher says. "Our sales reps want untargeted advertising just to create a brand name -- it's easier to make the sale if the customer knows in advance who we are. It's hard for them to see that we're much more cost-effective using targeted advertising."
Fisher also learned how to reduce a debt -- one reason he's held off until recently on spending to build RSL's brand awareness. "When you start a company, you incur debts and losses, and you have to focus on quickly becoming profitable. Our losses have decreased from $16 million [in the second quarter of 1998] to $3 million [in the second quarter of 1999]. And by the third quarter, we were EBITDA positive for the first time."