Magnates daughter forges own path in Silicon Valley

Isabel Maxwell admits she doesn't let go of things easily. It's a trait she inherited from her late father, publishing magnate Robert Maxwell.

"But," she notes. "I've learned how to be persistent in an elegant way."

Dressed in black pants and turtleneck beneath a brown velvet jacket, her gray eyes crinkle in a ready smile. The 49-year-old Silicon Valley exec was visiting Israel to meet with her partners in CommTouch, one of the world's leading providers of Web-based e-mail.

As company president, Maxwell handles sales, marketing and public relations from CommTouch's headquarters in Santa Clara. She also shares responsibility for strategic business development. CommTouch's research and development is based in Moshav Ein Vered, near Ra'anana.

In becoming the president of an Internet firm, Maxwell is both following in her father's footsteps and moving beyond the shadow of his flamboyant life and tragic death.

A Bay Area resident since 1981, she joined CommTouch in 1996 after selling the McKinley Group, another Internet company she founded with her twin sister, Christina.

Even in the exaggerated world of the Internet, CommTouch's new product line — free Web-based e-mail — seems to be a hit. Since Prontomail was launched in February 1998, some 11 million people have signed up, at a rate of 50,000 people a day.

Today the NASDAQ-traded company employs about 160 people, up from 40 at the start of 1998, and its growth continues at a phenomenal rate.

Maxwell was attracted by CommTouch's product and the energy of its founders. Also important, given her father's economic and political support for Israel, was the fact that the company's founders were Israeli.

"I've called it an affair of the heart," Maxwell said of her association with CommTouch. "It had to do with my father and my history."

She first visited Israel in 1979, staying with friends on Kibbutz Nahshonim, east of Petach Tikva. She didn't return until November 1991, in circumstances decidedly less auspicious.

Her father's body, plucked from the sea off Spain's Canary Islands, was buried on the Mount of Olives.

Shortly before dawn on Nov. 5, 1991, the 68-year-old tycoon had plunged to his death from his yacht, Lady Ghislaine. No one saw the fall.

The mysterious circumstances of Robert Maxwell's death spawned an entire cottage industry of theories: suicide, murder, assassination by the Mossad, KGB or Arab terrorists — anything, it would seem, but death by natural causes. His daughter believes it was an accident. Still, she said, "he's dead and nothing will bring him back."

In the decade between her first two visits to this country, Maxwell's father had undergone a spiritual revolution of sorts — a return to his roots that took the form of intensive support for Israel.

At the time of his death, Robert Maxwell owned 80 percent of the Ma'ariv daily newspaper, 51 percent of the Maxwell MacMillan-Keter publishing house, 16 percent of Teva Pharmaceuticals and large holdings in Scitex.

In one interview, Robert Maxwell's wife, Betty, said people believed her husband had "turned the Israeli economy around single-handed."

The son of poor, devoutly Orthodox Jews in the Carpathian foothills of Czechoslovakia, Maxwell lost his parents and virtually all of his close relatives in the Holocaust. Following the war, Maxwell met and married Elisabeth Meynard, a Huguenot and the daughter of a French industrialist. They moved to England.

Given the level of anti-Semitism in Britain after World War II, Robert Maxwell downplayed his Jewishness and his children were raised essentially as Protestants.

"We all knew where he came from. We talked about his family," Isabel Maxwell recalls, "but it's not like we went to the synagogue."

Unlike her brothers Kevin and Ian, who went into the family business, Isabel sought to free herself of her father's control and make her own way in life.

"My father was like a sun," she said. "Next to him no other light could shine. It was very intimidating. I think I needed to find my own way."

After earning a bachelor's degree from Oxford in law, history and French, Maxwell worked six years in broadcast journalism in England. Moving to America with her husband, Dale Djerassi — son of Carl Djerassi, the scientist who invented the birth-control pill — she became vice president of Djerassi Films Inc.

Maxwell and Djerassi since divorced, and Maxwell's second marriage also ended in divorce.

Though her father's name can open doors professionally, Maxwell tries not to capitalize on it. "I didn't go around with a big sign saying, 'I'm the daughter of Robert Maxwell.' I am who I am," she said. "If anything, you had to work harder, you were under much closer scrutiny and people were more ready to kick you out the door."

Maxwell left the film industry in 1990 and joined a market-research firm run by her twin sister. Soon thereafter the twins noticed that the Internet, then in its infancy, was almost useless as a research tool for the computer illiterate, and they decided to put together a guide for novices. Eventually the idea developed into the McKinley Group, which launched the online search engine Magellan, one of the first tools of its kind.

Twice the Maxwell sisters tried to take their business public; both times circumstances stopped them short. With their cash exhausted, they sold McKinley to Excite in August 1996.

Soon after, a headhunter hired by CommTouch, which recently had moved its corporate headquarters from Israel to Silicon Valley, recommended her.

Maxwell's pedigree "was very intriguing at the beginning, but it wasn't her name that made the decision for us," CommTouch co-founder and CEO Gideon Mantel said.

"When you're trying to bring an Israeli high-tech company to the Valley, you lack the American clout. You need someone who knows his way around the market — the companies, the decision-makers, the financial markets, the investment bankers. We wanted someone who knows the Internet and feels very comfortable in the consumer Internet marketplace. [The headhunter] found Isabel for us and we've lived happily ever after."

The company offers Web-based e-mail, meaning that users can get free e-mail accounts accessible through any computer with an Internet connection. In contrast, many "client-based" e-mail accounts can be accessed only through a connection to that specific Internet provider, meaning they may not be accessible when users are away from their personal computers.

With an international crew that includes Israelis, Latin Americans, Russians and a Moroccan, Maxwell has become the company's token American by virtue of her 17 years in the States.

In addition to the sentimental attraction of working with Israelis, there also are practical advantages, Maxwell says: a dogged work ethic instilled by the country's obligatory army service.

"If there's something to be done it gets done," she said. "If you have to work Sunday at midnight, you work Sunday at midnight. There are no whiners."

Only in recent years has Maxwell begun to delve again into her spiritual side. The tragedy of her father's death was one catalyst. Counseling helped too, as did the liberal, outdoorsy atmosphere of the Bay Area.

She does not identify with any one organized religion; rather her path is a solitary one, influenced by New Age spirituality, environmental awareness and Native American wisdom.