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What does Amiram Sivan's retirement from his job as chairman of Bank Hapoalim's board have to do with Arik Pinto, Louis Roth, Rickie Bachar, Sarah Leiserowitz and Hanoch Livneh? The next few months will provide an answer, for this bunch is in charge of the labor unions of the five large commercial banks in Israel, and Sivan's departure will have an impact on all of them.

Sivan's resignation - removal rather - after 16 years in the job marks a new era in Israeli banking, an era that leaves no room for sentiment. Along with Sivan's replacement this coming April, Bank Hapoalim will implement several other structural changes, including cutting the top management team from 15 to 11 and consolidating and dissolving several divisions. This is not a face lift, but rather a move that is designed to save the bank more than NIS 10 million a year.

One of the reasons for the breakup with Sivan is that he would not collaborate with the far-reaching restructuring plans of the bank's major shareholders. The good working relations Sivan has forged with the bank's employees guaranteed the management's peace of mind. Under his leadership, the bank's policy was to pay out very generous retirement packages of up to 300 percent, and no one was ever said to be "fired".

To the shareholders, this generosity may have been in order in the good days, but not now in the current global and domestic economic situation. Bank Hapoalim's major shareholders have started pressing the bank's management in recent months to streamline the bank's operations and cut down the retirement packages and lay off staff wherever necessary.

Not only is Bank Hapoalim privately held, but most of the shareholders are American. The American business culture may be known for the fat salaries paid in times of prosperity, but it is also famous for the cold, matter-of-factly cutbacks when times get hard. It only took a few days after September 11 for 100,000 Americans to lose their jobs. Bank Hapoalim's major shareholders feel it will be easier for them to implement their streamlining plans with Eliezer Yones as CEO.

This is bad news not only for Bank Hapoalim's employees. Because of this bank's leading role, the shock-wave is sure to strike other banks as well. Bank Hapoalim is already the most profitable bank in Israel, and once it seriously trims the fat, the other banks will be sure to follow. This means a period of labor unrest can now be expected the banking sector.

An officer in one of Bank Hapoalim's competitors said this week: "We can't wait for them to fire the first shot."