Galia Maor, Bank Leumi's CEO of the past 17 years and one of the most prominent women in Israel's economy, announced Sunday that she intends to step down in three or four months.
Maor, 69, caught the bank's board of directors by surprise. She said she had timed her departure to come after the bank's three-year plan was drafted, and after she had groomed a new generation of executives.
Yet Maor is also leaving at a time when the global economy, particularly the financial system, is likely to be heading into a rough spell.
Many capital market sources were not convinced by her explanation, wondering whether there were other factors motivating the CEO's announcement.
One could be the Knesset Finance Committee's initiative to enable the state to sell off the remainder of its holdings in the bank. Should the legislation pass, the government's share in the bank could be sold off to the public by mid-2012, at which point shareholders would have to choose replacements for the one-third of the board scheduled to complete their terms.
Maor had considered stepping down two years ago in a bid to become the bank's chairwoman, but withdrew her candidacy amid pressure from the public and from Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who believed it improper for a CEO to jump straight into the post charged with supervising the CEO.
Banking sector sources said they didn't believe Maor's resignation meant she was retiring. However, it does likely mean the bank is entering an era of internal power struggles and friction among the top management.
Leumi chairman David Brodet said that he would lead the committee to find a new CEO, and that candidates would be named soon.
Maor had been grooming the head of the bank's corporate division, Rakefet Russak-Aminoach, as her replacement, naming her her senior deputy several months ago. Russak-Aminoach had started her career as Maor's personal assistant when Maor was the bank's deputy CEO.
Russak-Aminoach is also close to the Ofer family, one of the bank's biggest borrowers, and her husband worked at various Ofer brothers companies for years. Her sister, Ayelet Bar-Azar, is an external director at Koor, a member of the IDB group, another one of the country's most powerful conglomerates.
Another strong candidate is Kobi Haber, head of the bank's economics and finance department and a former Finance Ministry budgets director.
Former banks commissioner Roni Hizkiyahu has also been mentioned as a potential candidate.
Maor started her career at the Bank of Israel in 1963, where she filled a string of management positions before leaving the central bank in 1989. She has been at Leumi since 1991, and has been the bank's CEO since 1995.
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