Driving in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

It's the management problem from hell: How do you run a company whose customers and employees are being killed?

Lior Baratz has spiky blond streaks in his hair, silver rings on his fingers, and wraparound aviator sunglasses. All of which makes him a pretty typical 26-year-old Israeli, if not all that typical of his profession. Baratz is a driver for Egged, the sprawling Israeli bus company, and although he's been on the job only three years, he is an Egged veteran in the most graphic, indelible way.

In April 2002, Baratz was at the wheel of Egged bus number 23, his regular route through Jerusalem. He was waiting out a red light on a Friday afternoon on Jaffa Road, in front of the bustling Mahane Yehuda outdoor market. Facing him across the intersection was Egged bus number 32A, coming the other way.

As Baratz looked through his windshield, the number 32A bus exploded right in front of him. The blast was so powerful, it blew out all the windows of bus32A, and the big bus leaped up off the road. The boom of the explosion rolled over Baratz and his passengers. There was a moment or two of total silence. Then the screams started.

Before Baratz could react, his passengers crowded to the front, yelling at him to open the door. They tumbled out, and he went with them, racing across the street to see what he could do.

But by the time Baratz got to the bus, Israeli emergency personnel were already there, taking control of the scene, attending to the injured and dead. They took Baratz aside, then sent him to be checked at the hospital, where he talked to a counselor before being sent home. The bombing killed 6 and injured 104, including the driver.

Egged offers drivers involved in bus bombings a few days off, but it doesn't force them to stay home. And Sunday morning, less than 48 hours after he watched a bus just like his blow up before his eyes, Baratz was back behind the wheel of the #23, running his regular route, right through the intersection where the bombing took place. "After a bombing, we act as if nothing happened," says Baratz. "Our mentality is that we don't like to look inside ourselves and think about it. We're not like that."

During the last three years, since the start of the second Palestinian intifada in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Egged has been a company under attack almost as directly as the nation of Israel itself. Since March 2001, suicide bombers have blown themselves up inside, or alongside, 20 Egged buses. On average, that's a bombing attack on the company's buses, drivers, and customers every 40 days (although the bombings tend to come in clusters).

Those attacks have killed 143 passengers -- more than 25% of all Israeli civilian deaths in the intifada. Because Israel is so small -- just 6 million residents -- those 143 deaths are the equivalent of 7,000 in the United States, more than twice the number that died on September 11.

"After a bombing, we act as if nothing happened," says Lior Baratz, who watched a bus blow up right across from his own.

The goal of the attacks has been to turn one of the most ordinary, reassuring, reliable objects in the landscape -- a city bus -- into an object of uncertainty and terror, to lace a ribbon of fear through any trip or errand where an Egged bus is visible.

The company has responded in a typically pragmatic Israeli way. "Buses are the easiest target with the highest number of possible victims," says Arik Feldman, the company chairman, who started out as a bus driver and still does double duty as the manager of the company's northern depot. "But we live with it. That's our harsh reality. And if a bus blows up, it doesn't stop us from running public transportation. It gives us more courage to continue so no one can prevent us from living here."

There is no management book, no business-school case study, on how to lead a company that has become a target of war. As much as any particular security measure or management plan, what has kept Egged's executives and managers going during the intifada is the attitude Feldman expresses. It's not simply persistence or determination. It's a refusal to be a victim, even of circumstances you don't control.

More than a target of opportunity for Palestinian bombers, Egged has been a target of intentionality. The company operates 70% of the public bus service in Israel. Founded in 1933, it is older than the state itself. Its red and green buses are a source of national pride and an emblem of national normalcy. Every day, the company fields 3,400 buses and carries 1 million Israeli and Arab-Israeli residents. It is essential.

The bombings have reduced ridership a total of 10% in the last three years, but they haven't forced Egged off the road. Its corporate response to being a target of terror -- week after week, month after month for three years -- is essentially the same as young Baratz's response to being one red light from disaster: Grab the wheel and keep driving. The company has not surrendered a single route in the face of the terrorists, even though some individual roads account for 10% or more of the attacks. Egged says that not a single one of its drivers has resigned because of this wave of bombings and other attacks, which have injured 21 of them but killed only one (another driver died in an attack in 1994).

What Egged managers and drivers confront as a matter of ordinary, everyday operations is the stuff of American nightmares in the wake of September 11. And if terror attacks ever come home to America with the numbing regularity and lethality that they have in the Middle East, Egged's purposeful response will be instructive.

How Egged has continued to operate is a story of macho pride, ingenuity, and a certain Israeli matter-of-factness. The company can't control the circumstances that have created this cycle of suicide bombers. Instead, drivers and managers have learned to adapt to the realities of the situation. This spring, Egged, known in Israel for protecting the privacy of its drivers and the security of its procedures, granted a Fast Company reporter unprecedented access to its staff and facilities. The picture of persistence that emerges is a vivid lesson in how one company operates under impossible circumstances.

"It's the little things that help you conquer the fear"

Reuven Rotchild, 46, has been folding his 6-foot-5 frame into the driver's seat of Egged buses for 18 years. He has always driven the routes in and around Afula, the northern town where he has spent most of his life. These days, he often drives route 835.

Route 835 is one of the runs along Wadi Ara Road, from Afula down to Tel Aviv and back, through a series of arid Arab and Israeli towns and villages. In the northern reaches, Wadi Ara Road skirts the "seam line," a de facto border between the Palestinian territories and Israel, a porous zone through which dozens of suicide bombers have entered Israel. Buses on this road have proven particularly vulnerable to attack. In the last two years, suicide bombers have struck buses on the route six times.

Driving Wada Ara Road has become an exercise in fear management. Before he gets on his bus, Rotchild pauses most days to say the traditional Jewish morning prayers -- a 20-minute ritual that involves strapping on two small boxes containing Torah scrolls. Rotchild isn't particularly observant. But he started saying the prayers, he says, for peace of mind, that "someone should watch over us." The ritual is not uncommon among Egged drivers since the attacks started, he says. "On every trip, you feel like you could be the next target," says Rotchild. "It's the little things that help you conquer the fear."

Those little things are Rotchild's daily routines -- some of which would be familiar to bus drivers anywhere, some that reflect the suspicions of a security agent. Often, the ordinary and the suspicious are indistinguishable.

When Rotchild boards his long green Volvo coach each morning, he does a walk-through, peering into the small garbage can next to the back door, looking for any unclaimed bags. He's looking for litter and also for packages that could conceal a bomb. (Another Egged driver prevented a disaster in July 2001 by finding a bomb left on his bus, hidden in a watermelon.) He settles into the high driver's seat and adjusts his mirrors -- including one that lets him look back at what his passengers are doing.

Whatever sense of captainship bus drivers normally feel, Rotchild has come to feel an added responsibility for guarding his passengers from death. "I have to suspect anyone who looks a little suspicious, or dresses a certain way," he says. "I have a responsibility and commitment to check everything out, particularly for my passengers from Afula, because they know me."

Rotchild has never seen a suicide bomber, but he never stops looking. He appraises every passenger waiting at each stop, running through his mind the list of tip-offs to a bomber: a man wearing a heavy coat, especially in warm weather, to hide bulky explosive belts; someone carrying a large bag that could contain a bomb; a man dressed as an ultra-Orthodox Jew in a place where they aren't common; an odd wire sticking out of a pocket; or simply someone with a nervous look in his eyes.

In the past, drivers weren't allowed to decide who boards and who doesn't, any more than they would be in the United States; but Egged now gives them that latitude. On Wadi Ara Road, if Rotchild spots a lone passenger waiting at an isolated stop, he often doesn't stop. "I'm very selective on Wadi Ara, especially at certain stops." It's an exhausting, even corrosive, state of mind, and it has taken some of the shine off being a driver for Rotchild. "I didn't come to Egged to be a soldier," he says.

Much of Israel relies on municipal or intercity buses to get around. There are no yellow school buses, for instance; school children use Egged. Professionals use it to commute; soldiers ride free. On a weekday morning in Jerusalem, the typical bus is full, its 40 seats and central aisle packed with passengers. Sixty percent of the company's fleet is made up of new, tree-green, sulfur-emission-reduced diesel buses; the cushioned seats are comfortable, the air-conditioning works. Prices are cheap -- about $1 for a city ride, $0.60 for students and seniors.

The intent of the bombers is to disrupt everyday life in Israel. What they have done, in the case of Egged, is make people suspicious and afraid -- of fellow riders, of the buses themselves. The fear is constant, present wherever the buses are. Everyone lives with it: drivers, Israeli passengers, Arab passengers, pedestrians walking by one of the hundreds of bus stops along city streets, even drivers sitting in cars next to an Egged bus in traffic, wondering if the bus will blow up before the light turns green.

Part of the power of terrorism is that it creates fear out of proportion to the actual danger. Residents of Israel, in fact, are far safer riding the buses than driving their cars. During the last three years, some 1,100 people have died in car accidents on Israeli roads, seven times the number killed in bus attacks.

Still, fear has seeped into many daily interactions. On a recent morning, an ultra-Orthodox passenger boards Lior Baratz's bus, then apologizes for speaking on his cell phone while paying for his ticket. Baratz strikes up a conversation. Given the divide between Israel's secular and religious citizens, this friendly exchange is unusual, but the passenger and driver are reassuring one another. The most recent bomber technique is to dress in the long black coats, black hats, and side curls worn by ultra-Orthodox men. "It's become part of the routine to look for bombers," says Baratz, "and yet not think about being bombed."

Drivers must also be careful not to overreact. Recently, an Arab teenager in Afula approached the door of a bus being driven by Shai Halevi. The boy was dressed in a heavy coat, laughing and pretending he was about to detonate himself. Halevi brushed it off as a typical teenage prank. And when an Arab passenger he recognizes gets on board, Halevi makes a point of putting on a show of friendliness for the benefit of the other passengers. "You're like a psychologist in this job, thinking through every scenario so that no one gets scared," Halevi says. "I can't put everything into fearing this situation, because if I did, I wouldn't be able to get up and work every morning."

". . . Lunch would be served"

Zvi Aharoni, 48, was just a few yards from the Afula bus depot on a March morning in 2002 when the number 823 bus exploded in the station. Aharoni is a manager and dispatcher at Afula. He raced to the bus, where he got a sickening glimpse of the power of the bomb: on the front steps of 823 sat the head of the terrorist.

"Buses are the easiest target with the highest number of possible victims. But we live with it. That's our harsh reality. And if a bus blows up, it doesn't stop us from running public transportation. It gives us more courage to continue so no one can prevent us from living here."

Arik Feldman, Chairman and CEO

Emergency personnel arriving at the scene shooed Aharoni and his colleagues away from the shattered bus. Aharoni busied himself getting the depot -- its windows shattered by the blast -- cleaned up. Quickly, a goal came to him: He focused on getting the lunchroom where the drivers eat back to normal. He wanted that as a sign, for drivers coming in for their midday meal, that life was moving forward.

"I didn't know if anyone would be able to eat," Aharoni says, "but I wanted to be sure that lunch would be served." Three hours after the bombing, lunch was served in a cafeteria from which all possible traces of the bombing had been removed.

Israelis do not call the three-year conflict the "intifada," an Arabic word meaning "uprising." Instead, they refer to the conflict by the Hebrew word matzav, which means "situation." Before the conflict, matzav was part of a common greeting, "Ma hamatzav?" -- literally, "What's the situation?"

The language is revealing. For Egged, the bombings are part of the matzav, part of the situation -- a piece of the great uncontrollable environment that must be coped with, much as a U.S. manager would cope with the economy. "We don't know when the situation will be over," says Opher Linchefski, Egged's chief financial officer. "We hope it will end. So we treat this like a recession. . . . The situation is just one of the parameters we think about now."

For Linchefski and his colleagues, dealing with the situation means controlling what you can while making as few mistakes as possible and staying focused on the future in the certainty that things will eventually improve. The bombings will end someday, just as economic cycles eventually turn. It's an unlikely combination of acceptance and determination. The bombings might paralyze another organization or group of people. Egged's managers decline to be held captive by them.

Israelis don't call the three-year conflict the "intifada." To them, it's "the situation." Says Linchefski: "We don't know when the situation will be over. We hope it will end. So we treat this like a recession. . . .The situation is just one of the parameters we think about now."

Opher Linchefski, CFO

The bombings have hit the company at a challenging time. The Egged Israel Transport Cooperative Society Ltd. has perhaps the most complicated corporate structure imaginable -- part regulated public utility, part enterprising growth company, part kibbutz. (The name Egged means "linked together.") The company has 7,000 employees, including 4,125 drivers, many second-generation; of those, 2,800 have bought into the cooperative and have a say in how Egged is run.

Linchefski is in the midst of an 8-year plan to restructure Egged. The company is preparing to un-wind the cooperative ownership structure in the next few years; the government is slowly opening its routes to competition; and Egged is expanding into new businesses, including operating a van service and investing in a light rail system. Linchefski has continued a 10-year effort to make Egged more efficient -- the workforce is down 32% from 10,280 employees in 1989. The challenge of the last three years has been to maintain Egged's market share and revenue -- annual revenue is around $600 million, but the company has lost $100 million since the intifada began -- while maintaining service and morale. "We live and breathe this thing," says Linchefski. "We hope the situation will improve. But even if it doesn't, we continue our work."

As it turns out, morale has been less of a problem than one might guess. Egged drivers show much the same esprit as New York firefighters in the wake of September 11, and the public sees them that way too, as everyday heroes. And in a country where unemployment is above 10%, drivers are happy to have not just a job, but a good job: Egged's salaries are high for Israel.

For the company's managers, the situation affects every decision. But Egged hasn't created the defense mechanisms a similarly threatened U.S. company might. The company doesn't have a team to analyze bombings to detect things that might be making buses more vulnerable; that is done by the military and the police, with Egged's input. Its buses have not been redesigned to better protect riders, although the newer buses have a plastic panel behind the high driver's seat, which may in part be why just one driver has been killed.

What Egged has done is create a dedicated security force. Following the first serious wave of suicide bombings in 1996, it put specially trained personnel on buses and at terminals and stops to watch for attackers. That strategy has been expanded over the past two years -- Egged now has a full-time security force of 450.

One of Raz's innovations is his "Kojak car," a small Fiat with a siren, staffed by a pair of security guards who drive the Wadi Ara Road ahead of the buses, keeping an eye out for anything suspicious. "We have no way of knowing where the next bomb is going to hit," he says.

Aza Raz, Security officer

Egged's guard trainees are between 22 and 31, many recent veterans of the Army's hard-core fighting units. They spend 10 days in intense physical training, including improving hand-to-hand combat skills. But with 450 guards and 3,400 buses, the force is spread thin. "We can't cover it all," says Linchefski. "It's all about probabilities, trying to figure out the best places to put the guards that we have."

One-third of those guards are in the hands of Aza Raz, a 58-year-old former paratrooper with a graying-blond crew cut and a military bearing. Raz, who drove buses for 20 years before being promoted, is Egged's security officer for the northern region -- the area that includes Afula. Raz's pager often wakes him at 4 AM, as text messages start coming in from the Israeli Army and police with intelligence about potential terror attacks. By mid-morning, he may have 20 such alerts, which he uses in deciding how to deploy his guards.

A large map on Raz's office wall has lines of thumbtacks tracking Wadi Ara Road, as well as vulnerable areas in Haifa, which also has been hit by bus bombings. One of his innovations is what he calls his "Kojak car," a small Fiat with a siren, staffed by a pair of guards who drive the Wadi Ara Road ahead of the buses, keeping an eye out for anything suspicious. "We have no way of knowing where the next bomb is going to hit," Raz says. "But we have no choice but to ride on roads like Wadi Ara, because we're a monopoly. We're Egged."

After the Bomb

The hollow metal skeleton of bus number 14A, blown up in a suicide bombing on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem in early June, sits in a back corner of the Denya bus depot in Jerusalem. Long strips of the bus's red-and-white metal siding are crumpled up on the pavement alongside the bus like pieces of aluminum foil. Some seats, their red-and-orange striped upholstery shredded to reveal chunks of foam, sit outside the bus, the corners burned black.

Reclaiming parts from shattered buses is just another facet of Egged's resilience.

Both sets of metal stairs leading into the bus are buckled from the intensity of the blast, and the front and rear door frames are warped, as are the black metal grab bars once held by standing passengers. The dashboard sits askew, revealing a labyrinth of wiring. Just five steps down the aisle from the driver's seat, a large, ragged rectangular hole through the floor shows where the bomber stood when he detonated himself. The blast knocked out every window, including the windshield, shattered the driver's rearview mirror, and destroyed the small red metal box that held the fire extinguisher. The bus was packed with rush-hour passengers -- seats full, people standing in the aisle. Seventeen passengers were killed, torn apart when the bomb went off.

But some things improbably survived. Despite the damage around his seat, Ibrahim Atrash, the Arab-Israeli driver, was only slightly injured. On the ledge to the left of his seat, which is missing its high back cushion, sit some coins and a bus schedule folded in half, its seams worn. At the back door, the lid to the plastic garbage can is partly melted, but two discarded soda bottles and a juice carton inside are unscathed. A sticker attached to the back wall reads, "Passenger: Please look around and report any suspicious objects to the driver. Remember: Vigilance prevents disaster!!!"

In the case of bus 14A, vigilance didn't protect the bus from the bomber, who boarded at a busy stop that had been checked by an Egged security guard 20 minutes before the blast. The guard questioned two Arabs who were waiting to board the bus, but didn't suspect anything about the bomber, Abed Almuati, a 17-year-old Palestinian who was dressed as an ultra-Orthodox Jew.

By the time a destroyed bus is taken to the nearest bus yard, one thing that has been removed is any evidence that people were hurt or killed. Bus 14A has no blood stains, no reminders of the bodies blown to pieces by the metal fragments packed into the bomber's explosives belt. Every piece of flesh and fragment of skin is gathered, removed, and identified. The skeleton of the bus is brought to the yard so that Egged mechanics can salvage what they can -- including engine parts -- before the remains are carted off to the junkyard.

The cleansing of human remains is done in accordance with Jewish law. The dead are supposed to be buried whole, or as nearly whole as possible. But it has another result. The blown-up buses are cleansed of human pain as well, or as nearly as possible. All that remains is the broken machine, and the machine can be dealt with on its own terms. Reclaiming parts from the buses is just another example of Egged's resilience. Even shattered buses can, in a small way, contribute to keeping the rest of Egged rolling.

Jessica Steinberg (jessica@netvision.net.il) is a journalist based in Jerusalem.

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