Ralph Robbins knows every business deal has hiccups, and one hiccup last summer put him in a tough spot between Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and an Israeli company.
Last year, Robbins was working with OSG, which manufactures bullet-proof glass, to expand its production in Virginia, and McAuliffe was scheduled to visit the company during a trip to Israel.
Before the deal was closed, another company asked OSG to buy it. OSG began considering pulling out of the expansion talks with Robbins.
“When you know the governor is coming,” and he expects new business in Virginia, “a pullback would be a huge disappointment,” said Robbins, executive director of Virginia Israel Advisory Board, a state body that works to improve economic and cultural links between Virginia and Israel.
Rather than let the deal collapse, Robbins kept working away at OSG as it evaluated whether to buy the other company.
Ultimately, OSG decided to expand in Virginia, and meeting with McAuliffe was a success.
Deals with Israeli companies, and the ensuing hiccups, have been Robbins’ work for 16 years on the Virginia Israel Advisory Board. Earlier this month, Robbins announced he will step down on Sept. 1.
“Replacing Ralph will not be easy, as he combines passion with an entrepreneurial approach to grow Israeli businesses in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” board chairman Mel Chaskin said in a prepared statement. The board has formed a search committee to find a replacement.
Robbins, an entrepreneur at heart, founded the American Medical Center, a private hospital in Israel. He sold it in 2000 and was hired by the advisory board the next year.
“An entrepreneur working in the government is almost an oxymoron,” Robbins said in a phone interview from his home in Ramat Hasharon, a Tel Aviv suburb. He splits his time between there and Reston.
Robbins’ job is to seek out Israeli companies that can benefit by expanding to Virginia — creating more jobs in the commonwealth and giving it improved access to Israeli innovations, whether those are in food technology or bullet-proof glass.
He has gone on trade missions to Israel with every Virginia governor during his tenure in the job.
“Ralph has played a key role in strengthening the ties between Virginia and Israel — both culturally and economically,” said McAuliffe in a statement.
Last July, the governor and a Virginia Tech delegation signed a five-year memorandum of understanding with the Strauss Group, an Israeli-based international corporation that owns brands including Sabra hummus and the Max Brenner Chocolate Bar.
The memorandum stated the parties will cooperate to advance food technology research for the public’s benefit.
Food technology refers to techniques that make food more nutritious while using fewer resources, such as a sugar substitute that creates the same flavor while using half the amount of sugar.
The father of the advisory board was then-delegate and later House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who proposed the body in 1996. The board consists of 31 members, most of whom are volunteers.
Robbins credited his success to being able to bridge the cultural gaps between the ways both Israelis and Americans do business.
“I will hold their hands and become an unofficial consultant with the purpose of bringing the two sides together,” he said.
Robbins, donning his entrepreneurial hat, will look for another opportunity — not a job, he said — after he steps down. One possibility is that he will advise Israeli businesses on how to expand to the United States.
Meanwhile, he said, “I told all of the companies I’ve worked with: If they want to have a meeting in my favorite coffee shop, then I’ll be happy to give them some [free] advice.” n