Dr. Eli Fischer signing copies of his autobiography at Barnes & Noble Bookstore at the University of Chicago.
Eli Fischer sits in a Tel Aviv café wiping his eyes with a disposable towelette. The unassuming 77-year-old head of Fischer Pharmaceuticals is demonstrating how to use the Israeli hygiene product that recently debuted in New York and soon will hit Los Angeles.
“We sell over a million Dr. Fischer Eye-Care Cleansing Wipes in Israel every month, so we decided to start with this one item in New York to see how the branded product will do,” says Fischer, who for the past 10 years has sold eye-care and skin-care products in the United States and other countries under private labels for major pharmacy chains. Amazon and eBay also now carry his blue-and-white products.
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In Israel, the Dr. Fischer logo is ubiquitous. Unlike Betty Crocker or Aunt Jemima, the name does not refer to a fictional marketing persona. Hence the title of his newly released autobiography, Dr. Fischer: The Man Behind the Logo.
It’s difficult to separate Fischer the man, from Fischer the business. After 47 years, the Czech-born pharmacist has become the face of 500 leading products from prescription eye drops to sunscreen. He has acquired 10 companies including the Israeli chain of Body Shop stores, which he has grown from 20 to 45.
He’s also a doting family man and a leading philanthropist with a special interest in promoting peace through the arts.
From car mechanic to pharmacist
Over a lasagna lunch, Fischer relates to ISRAEL21c that both his grandfather and father were physicians at a healing spa in the Sudetenland. Staying one step ahead of the coming Holocaust, the Fischer family landed in the Jaffa Port on March 15, 1939, just as Hitler’s forces were entering Prague.
Fischer claims he was a lackluster student who wanted to quit school and be a mechanic. But one year into high school, something clicked. Instead of working in a garage, Fischer earned a master’s degree in biochemistry and microbiology at the Hebrew University.
At 23 and newly married, Fischer found himself working as a teaching assistant to a Nobel Prize winner at Harvard before going on for his doctorate in pharmacy at the University of California-San Francisco.
While there, in 1961, he helped develop Eppy, a revolutionary eye-drop product to treat glaucoma. “It was the drug of choice for several years, and now there are better ones,” he says modestly.
Returning to Israel, Fischer joined Assia, one of the forerunners of Teva Pharmaceuticals.
“After 10 months, I wanted to leave because I’m an individualist and I don’t like being told what to do,” he says. “I wanted to start my own lab with a friend.”
First, he spent a year back in California learning every aspect of pharmaceutical production at Barnes-Hind, a maker of contact lenses and solutions. In 1963 he joined the company’s board, and returned to Israel with $5,000 in seed money to start his own business.
Fischer and his wife, Dvora, rented a factory in Bnai Brak, near Tel Aviv. And so Fischer Pharmaceuticals was born.
“We started with two products — one for eyes and one for skin. Most of the week, I went out selling it at doctors’ offices. My wife was chief accountant, but there were no accounts for nearly two years,” he recalls.
The slow road to success was strewn with setbacks and crises, as in many new businesses. Today the company employs more than 700 people of all races and religions at its two Israeli facilities, and provides income for about 300 ancillary support staff from printers to drivers to electricians.
“We export to 30 countries,” says Fischer. “Every day, we send two 40-foot containers from the Haifa Port to the US and two to Europe.”
All eyes on the US
The Israeli popularity of Fischer’s sterilized eye-cleansing wipes made this product a natural for the brand’s US debut.
A sales force was hired to meet with New York-area ophthalmologists, pediatricians and pharmacists, because the product is sold mostly through doctor recommendation and only in pharmacies.
“We will see after one year how we do. After seven months, we already knew it was time to spread to LA,” he says. “I hope to be there by April.”
His goal is not only to sell more wipes, but to start a whole new trend. “I’m trying to teach a new concept: daily eye hygiene as preventative medicine,” he says. “You do it after you brush your teeth, and it just takes a second.”
Though two of the three Fischer daughters now run the business day to day — freeing their father for press interviews and trips to the US to manage the new operation there — the man behind the logo is involved in all research and marketing decisions and in many charitable endeavors.
Art for Peace
“My late wife and I were always involved in volunteering,” he says. One of his pet charitable projects is the Dr. Fischer Art for Peace Foundation.
“In 1979, when the peace treaty was signed between Israel and Egypt and a stamp was issued to commemorate this event, we took first-day issue envelopes and asked artists to paint on them on the subject of peace. We made an exhibit from this. We repeated it in 1994 after the peace treaty with Jordan.”
“Artists: Messengers of Peace” has traveled to major cities including New York, Washington, Paris, London, Tokyo and just recently Prague, under the curatorship of Israeli artist Doron Polak and with the backing of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
A hardcover book of the images made its way to then-President Ezer Weizman, to Jordanian King Hussein, to former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – “everyone we thought can help bring peace,” says Fischer. “Now I am not as optimistic as I was then.”
A related project, “Children of the World Paint Peace,” resulted in 1,500 entries. Many of them were later donated to brighten up Israeli pediatric wards.
After Dvora Fischer died in 2006, Fischer rented exhibition space in her name at Tel Aviv’s ZOA House, and mounts a new show there every two months. Participating artists are required to donate half their sales profits to social causes such as schools for autistic children and shelters for battered women.
First and foremost, Fischer is a proud father and grandfather. He hosts his daughters Dafna, Sigal and Nurit and their husbands and children at his home every Friday.
“You should of course take care of your family,” he writes in his autobiography, “but do not close your eyes to those who need help, to the weak people in society, the poor and underprivileged. This should be an integral part of your life and business activity and should not be considered philanthropy.”