At the age of 78 Dr. Eli Fischer doesn’t plan to retire any time soon. He is a scientist, a successful international industrialist, and even an international brand – it really is his own name on all the products of his company, created by Fisher Pharmaceutical Laboratories. These days though he has handed on most of the day to day responsibility for managing the company to two of his three daughters, Sigal Bar-On and Nurit Harel .
They are today very effectively running the huge concern with the famous logo “Dr. Fischer”, which is of course inseparable from the family’s name. Eli is still President of the corporation though and a member of the Board of Directors.
Every morning he comes to work at the head office located in B’nei Brak in Tel Aviv. As well he often travels up to the Galilee, where the factory is located now, checking out hands-on all its departments there, testing and giving advice. After all this he still finds time for a diverse number of philanthropic activities as well.
The pharmaceuticals and “cosmeceuticals” company he created, “Dr. Fischer” is significant by any measure. It now has over 500 different products and employs over 750 direct employees (plus another 250 service providers). With revenues of US$100 million a year, Dr. Fischer exports its eye and skin care products to 35 different countries and every day four blue and white containers leave the factory destined for “the world” all bearing the name “Dr. Fischer.”
Last year Dr. Eli Fischer pushed forward into the U.S. market under its own brand name for the first time, even though it has produced for “private label” brands there for many years. Dr. Fischer started in the US with the company’s flagship eyelid cleansing eye care product, “EYE CARE”, which is everywhere the company’s best-selling product – selling about a million and a half units every month in Israel alone. Today the company exports to the United States some twenty different products, some of which are sold using distributors and many directly through Amazon.com. And this is just the start. At the same time as the U.S. launch the English version of his autobiographical book, “Dr. Fischer – the man behind the logo” was also published there, selling in major bookstores including Barnes & Noble and also through Amazon.com.
Dr. Fischer With his three daughters: Daphne, Sigal and
– Why the U.S. and why now?
I knew I had universal solutions to problems in the eyes and skin. As the company developed, our exports began to expand too in Europe, South Africa and others places, under our own name. In Israel itself it is very difficult for us to grow any further today because we already control 70% – 80 % percent of the market for our primary products. Then, too, with sun protection products and baby products we are still over 50%. So maybe we can grow by 5% or a bit more, but to really grow further you have to enter the U.S. market in a serious way. New York alone has three times as many pharmacies as the entire state of Israel, so the strategy is a no-brainer.
In addition, our company has already been working for years under the most stringent American standards of the FDA for our private label brands, making it easier for a smooth entry into this market once we gave it the green light.
Accordingly a year ago we decided to do a pilot with EYE CARE, a product that 95% of ophthalmologists and pediatricians recommend. Presently we are selling our products also in many Jewish and Israeli stores in New York and Los Angeles, but somebody in Texas, for example, can already order our products online through Amazon.com and they will get it within two days. The goal is of course to continue to grow in the United States.
– At your age you really still want to grow ?
“You cannot stand still in business, or in life. In the past I offered my daughters to sell the company, but they did not want to so if we stay in business growth must come, either from new products or from other companies we might acquire.”
– What is the secret of your success ?
“I’m a bit like an astronaut, with my head in the sky but nevertheless my feet still easily touch the ground, like a dancer. For any leader this way of looking at things becomes a way of life: the combination of head in the sky dreaming, and feet on the ground care and control, make for flexible thinking and a vision for the future, whilst retaining vigilance and alertness.”
“I realized early on that I needed to be both an entrepreneur and a manager. When you want to launch a new product you have three options; one, to bring out a product that is no good then throw it out and lose money; the second option is to make a good product but one that is for a condition that not many people suffer from – tuberculosis is a good example there. The third option is to bring the best product possible for a condition that many people suffer from, such as eye diseases, anti-aging products and more – and so I chose the third option.”
– Why an autobiography ?
“Many people refer to me just as a brand-name – and then sometimes only secondarily as a person. But before I am the image of a business I am of course simply an ordinary human being, a private individual. The book shows the essence of my life without masks or disguises, offering up both my strengths and my weaknesses. This is not a text-book, it is more about experiences of home and family, difficulties and successes, struggles and achievements in the early pre-state days and then the evolving state of Israel. And of course it is a story of a dream come true: the process of drug development and construction of our large enterprise.”
– You were born in Carlsbad, Czech Republic, how did this shape your life ?
“Carlsbad is a city of healing springs, and I engaged in manufacturing drugs for healing. It is a town that produced liquor extracts of wild plants and in my business I make preparations made from natural materials.”
“My great grandfather Bernard Bloch lived in the town, where he was considered a leading Czech industrialist in the early twentieth century, and I too am an industrialist marketing products world wide.”
“My grandfather Dr. Heinrich Bloch was a doctor engaged in research and development. He was very learned in the development of gynecological therapeutic equipment and was actually honoured by Emperor Franz Joseph II, and I too do research and drug development and have won awards for achievements.”
“Then my father Walter Fischer was a doctor and I am therefore still basically carrying on a family dynasty dedicated to medical progress. I was a second son, and I remember a childhood in a wealthy home living with two maids there. It all changed in September 1938 when England and Hitler signed the “Munich Agreement” which transferred the Sudetenland to Germany. A sense of danger was in the air and my parents decided to leave everything behind and go to Israel.”
“I was three years old at the time and life in Israel under the British Mandate was not easy. We lived in cramped conditions, the British refused to allow my father to practice medicine and so he joined the Haganah and treated patients on kibbutzim.”
After the army Eli Fischer went to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to study Bio Chemistry and Microbiology – the study of infectious diseases. “It was clear to me that I did not want to be just a doctor. I wanted to engage in drug development.”
He completed a BA and MA with honours and during his studies he met Devora, then an 18 -year-old student from Haifa, “a social worker at heart”. She gave him three daughters and died seven years ago from cancer after 48 years of marriage.
After their marriage they traveled to the United States. He enrolled in a Ph.D. program in theoretical Biochemistry at Harvard University and Devora studied Pharmacy in Boston. Together they dreamed of going back home to set up a pharmaceutical plant to develop drugs that would help suffering people.
“At Harvard I learned how to create scientifically, but after meeting several renowned scientists and even some Nobel laureates there, I realized I learned something far more important, – namely that a little personal intellectual modesty is a prerequisite for all of us! Since my real dream was to engage in the development of drugs, when I was accepted by the School of Pharmacy at the University of San Francisco, in California, I quit Harvard and eventually completed my doctorate in California.”
– In your book you talk about the missed opportunity in San Francisco when you developed a drug but did not end up with your name on the patent for it, what actually happened ?
“This is true actually. During my PhD studies there I worked with a professor there who was a drug expert for eyes and the skin. He had received a grant to develop a cure for glaucoma (which is the accumulation of fluid in the eye causing an increase in intraocular pressure and optic nerve injury) and when I glanced at his formulas, I told him that if adrenaline and boric acid were added, the compound will be stable and neutral in solution. He listened to me.”
“Two months later I was already his lab manager. Our research papers on glaucoma were published in the scientific literature. Two years later, I discovered the idea was patented as the product EPPY for use against glaucoma, based on it, so I was amazed that he made sure that only his name was listed as the inventor on the patent and my name was not mentioned at all.”
“I was advised to file a claim but I gave up, after all it helped pave my way through the university and was a good way for me gain experience. Upon graduation, I gave up a job offer there as I was longing to become father of a baby and we decided to move back to Israel. I stayed friends over the years with that professor and he and his wife visited us here in this country. He is already dead now and today EPPY has been dropped from the shelves as there are now better drugs for the disease.”
– How did you set up your company in Israel
“Upon my return to Israel, I worked as an employee of the pharmaceutical company “Asia” in charge of developing and improving products but ten months later I left with a growing desire to establish my own laboratory for drug development.”
“Then I met a senior American who worked for the pharmaceutical company ” Barnes Hind. He offered to fly me to their factory in Silicon Valley in California to learn how a business works.”
“For me the year I spent there was the best possible school, I moved between departments and I learned everything about creating and managing medications. At the end of the year I was offered a senior position there, but I refused and the company invested US$5, 000 for a 25 percent stake in my own start-up.”
“So I returned to Israel to realize the dream. We did not have enough money to live on but we had an old car and found a little place in B’nei Brak at a rent of US$115 dollars a month.”
“Getting official approval took about a year and finally in March 1965 we opened Fischer Pharmaceutical Industries.”
“Our first two products were for acne and eye infections as at the start I decided to focus on my specialty: Medicines for eyes and skin. I visited all the doctors to try and sell my products. By 1968 we were seven employees. In 1972 I bought back the stock of the ” Barnes Hind.” In 1973 we brought out the iodine disinfection product ” Betadine ” which was a great success, and to this day the product series of Betadine is used in all hospitals in the country and almost every home in Israel. From then on it became easier to grow and develop as cash started to roll in.”
– When did you first realize that you had hit it big ?
“You do not wake up one morning and say this to yourself. It is all the result of painstaking hard work, day after day, sometimes for years, with successes and disappointments along the way . To this day I do not tell myself that I “did it”. We have developed and invented hundreds of products that are in every home, but still none is yet a perfect product to me.”
“Once you have finished developing something – you start working on a new development or an improvement. In the nineteen seventies we bought companies and developed products, and with time we went and we expanded them and built additional floors. We bought a factory and we began to participate in international exhibitions and so the performance of our products and interest in them grew reciprocally.”
– And yet can you put your finger on your greatest achievement ?
“Without question in business terms the foremost achievement is the establishment and development of the brand itself, “Dr. Fischer”. There is not a family in Israel today who does not ask for our products by name, and the second achievement is of course exports.”
– How do you manage the risks in the company ?
“When you run a business you must think about every possibility as in every business there are always risks lurking in the background: new competition, possibility of recession, claims that may be made against you, forces of nature – or whatever. For example some of our baby products were very successful and enhanced our revenues. But the active ingredient of some of them was declared not to be good. We could have panicked but instead came out of the crisis better than we were before. We went back into the market with improved alternatives which were already ready in our labs and immediately sold tens of thousands of units, and eventually even increased our revenues.”
– Do people try to copy you ?
“Yes but it does not worry me that plagiarists will copy – I will already be a step forward with the next product, which is better. The truth? If I was starting out today in this business, I think I might certainly copy the “Dr. Fischer” company myself!
Presently Dr. Fischer Pharmaceutical Laboratories is divided into a number of departments, including the Departments of Ophthalmology, Dermatology, and therapeutic pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. In addition the company owns 47 Body Shop stores in Israel and will soon open two more.
Eli Fisher has three daughters. The eldest Daphne does not work in the company and is an artist. However she first graduated in engineering at the Technion in information systems, then continued studying psychology and completed her doctorate in behavioral sciences and has written several books.
” She prefers to work with people and not machinery.”
Sigal is a former education officer in the IDF, received a BA in International Relations and an MBA and is now primarily engaged in the human resources side of the company. Nurit studied Pharmacy and worked in drug development for some of the company’s products, before continuing graduate studies in genetics. After an internship, she completed her PhD in medical sciences and is engaged in the company primarily in research and development.
– If someone comes and wants to buy you ?
I will be obliged to listen and then I will consult with my daughters.
– Can you give some tips for those who dream of being Dr. Fischer ?
“Do not stand still. You will learn all the time and even if things look pretty good, still strive to improve. Someone once asked me about the state of the company and I told him all the areas where we needed to improve. He said in response to me, I did not know your situation was so bad! So I quickly corrected him that our situation is fine but it is my job to keep thinking ahead how to improve even more, how to change, to grow and to develop.”
“Look, even a company like Sony started with just two engineers only and see what they became. Forward thinking and the desire to improve and to get even better, they are the keys to success . Another tip: find the best people to work alongside you and don’t be afraid to delegate. Do not think you know everything; you have to know when to let go, to reduce the burden that is on you, to give it to someone else.”
“Also it is very important to adjust to changing circumstances. I can sit with a publicist and make a plan and the next day I might see something, or dream about something and then I ‘ll come up with a new idea. When they told me once that I was crazy for changing my mind – I said only a donkey does not change his mind.”
Dr. Eli Fischer and his daughters, also engage in many social and philanthropic endeavours, including through a fund established in the name of the late Devora Fischer. They established the Gallery ZOA, ZOA House in Tel Aviv that gives a free platform for artists and half of revenues are transferred to the Fund, which they contribute to children’s charities in need.
– How has your life changed since you became head of a large and successful industrial company ?
“Not much. I have lived in the same residential building for decades but finally moved from the fifth floor to the 12th floor. I have a car a little bit better than I had before; now I drive a Mercedes but I drive the car myself.”
“I do not own a yacht and I do not need one – who wants to get seasick? I get up early in the morning, go swimming in the local pool, eat the same food I always ate, go to the movies or to play. When I am abroad I go walking around pharmacies the same way others go to the museums…
– What is most important to you at the end of the day ?
“Without a doubt, family and I am very proud of myself. I have 11 grandchildren ages 24 to 8 years old. Two soldiers and three students have already completed service. I try to see family as much as possible; they come to visit, spontaneous grandchildren come up for breakfasts and we go for family holidays.
– Do you have a professional dream not yet fulfilled ?
“Medicine today is moving towards preventive medicine. I would like to do more in the area of anti-aging; developing dietary supplements for example which can significantly affect memory. We are currently investing as well in a number of start-ups not directly related to us but which can impact our future. The subject of stem cells, for example, is very interesting to me.”
– What most surprises you ?
“It annoys me a little that after all the years, and the serious scientific studies I have participated in, the world considers me as an industrialist and not as a scientist. Of course, a few years ago I did do a doctorate in business administration as well just for fun!”