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Playing by his Own Rules

Barbara Bensoussan

Howard Jonas earned his first million dollars by the time he was 18 and later built IDT into a telecom powerhouse. Today he’s applying his initiative and creativity to a project that has the potential to transform the Jewish state.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Howard Jonas is nothing if not inventive.

For his first business, a hot dog stand stationed outside a hospital, he cooked franks on a camping stove and served drinks from a Coleman cooler. The stand itself was a repurposed baby crib and he was all of 14 years old.

Later, he would make his first million dollars before entering college by selling specialty radio programming to skeptical station managers — shows on finance and health — essentially inventing the genre.

That college he would attend, Harvard, felt like a waste of time. Anyway, it interrupted a lucrative business career and he found the liberal politics on campus exasperating.

Later, he would found a multibillion-dollar telecommunications company, IDT, which at its height would employ 5,000 people around the world. The company would move from the Nasdaq to the New York Stock Exchange and Jonas would make a mint on the initial public offering, but the company would eventually fall from its once grand heights.

Which only provided Jonas another opportunity to reinvent himself.

Today Jonas, 57, is once again at the helm of IDT, but this time he’s diversified the company beyond telecommunications to include energy and oil exploration. It’s a quest that has brought him to buy a major interest in oil shale fields inIsrael, where he’s betting thatIsrael’s estimated 250 billion barrels will one day make it a major oil producer.

“Howard’s mind is just wired differently than the average executive’s,” says longtime employee Yona Katz. “His thought process is not bound by the same limitations as most people. We can all be discussing a business strategy or an issue, and he’ll come up with an approach or solution that’s innovative and completely out of the box.”

Avi Lazar, a former IDT employee and Mishpacha’sUS CEO, agrees. “Howard is a visionary.” 

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