Cellcom and Partner are trying to take advantage of Clubmarket's collapse to take business away from the third cellular telephone operator, Pelephone, whose CEO, Jacob Gelbard, was a major player in the supermarket chain in the months before it sought protection from its creditors.
Gelbard, the former CEO of the Co-Op supermarket chain, created the concept of Clubmarket's Empire discount stores. He began advising Clubmarket's owners in early 2005, and three months ago, he was appointed to its board of directors. He also negotiated with the owners over becoming a partner in the chain, but these negotiations ultimately came to nothing.
Cellcom has already prepared a list of Clubmarket suppliers that work with Pelephone and plans to contact them to suggest that they switch cell phone companies. Partner has also approached some Clubmarket suppliers about switching.
Both companies decided on this strategy a few days ago, as they know that Clubmarket's suppliers stand to lose a bundle from the chain's collapse and are therefore furious with everyone involved in the fiasco. But they received encouragement from this week's announcement by Ron Kobrovsky, president of the Central Bottling Company (also known as Coca-Cola Israel), that he had decided to stop working with Pelephone because of Gelbard's involvement in Clubmarket's collapse.
Kobrovsky noted that he has worked with Pelephone for more than 20 years and has nothing but respect for the company and its workers. Nevertheless, he said, Central Bottling is unwilling to do business with any company headed by Gelbard, because during his time at Clubmarket, Gelbard behaved unacceptably toward the chain's suppliers: A mere day before Clubmarket collapsed, Kobrovsky charged, Gelbard personally assured him that there was nothing to worry about, and that the banks would surely give the chain additional loans. In making such a false claim, Gelbard violated basic business ethics, Kobrovsky said.
Nevertheless, he continued, he is not calling for a boycott of Pelephone, both because he has nothing against the company itself and because not all Clubmarket suppliers personally received false assurances from Gelbard, as he did.
Some Clubmarket suppliers clearly do not share Kobrovsky's aversion. Cosmetics magnate Pnina Rosenblum, for instance, said that she has no intention of switching cell phone companies, as she sees no reason to punish Pelephone for Clubmarket's failings. A senior executive at another Clubmarket supplier added: "There's no reason to punish Pelephone workers for the actions of a hired CEO who could move to another company tomorrow."
But another executive at a third supplier felt as Kobrovsky did: If there were an organized movement to leave Pelephone among Clubmarket suppliers, he said, he would join it. And other executives added that they, like Kobrovsky, had in fact discussed Clubmarket's commercial affairs with Gelbard.
Gelbard, who is currently a candidate to become CEO of Bezeq, has refused to comment publicly on Clubmarket's affairs since its collapse. Yesterday, however, he published a statement denying that he ever misled Kobrovsky or concealed information from him about Clubmarket's situation.
Gelbard's associates went even further, terming Kobrovsky's behavior "boorish." Gelbard, they said, has tried to call him for the last two days to refute his allegations, but Kobrovsky refused to speak to him.
"Kobrovsky is blaming Gelbard in order to absolve himself of responsibility for having decided, even after receiving complete information about Clubmarket's situation, to extend it additional credit as a supplier," charged one Gelbard associate. "He thereby worsened Coca-Cola's situation as a creditor. Now, he's trying to absolve himself of responsibility for the mistake."
A Pelephone spokeswoman said that she is sure the other cell phone companies understand that Pelephone has no connection to Clubmarket's affairs, and therefore the idea of trying to persuade Clubmarket's suppliers to switch cell phone operators is ridiculous.
A Partner spokesman denied that Partner is approaching Pelephone customers regarding the Clubmarket affair, and Gelbard said that Partner CEO Amikam Cohen repeated this assurance to him personally.
Cellcom declined to comment. However, Gelbard said that Cellcom CEO Yitzhak Peterburg also denied the report in a personal conversation with him.
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