Behind Troubled Mega Supermarket Chain, a Billionaire Socialist

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A Mega superstore in Tel Aviv, July 2015.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

When Shraga Biran appeared Tuesday in Lod District Court, where Mega and its creditors were meeting over terms for its bailout, all eyes were set on him.

That wasn’t just because he is the controlling shareholder of Mega, but because through all the months of crisis at Israel’s second-largest supermarket chain, the 83-year-old Biran never spoke publicly about the problem.

Even employees of Alon Holdings, his investment vehicle, say they have never met him, even though he holds 42% of the company. Last Saturday night, when scores of Mega employees came to his elegant home in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood and called him through the intercom, he refused to answer, although they knew he was home.

He declined, with apologies, to appear at a Knesset meeting devoted to Mega this week, and at Monday’s meeting of Mega creditors, Biran was again absent. Asked about that, Alon Blue Square CEO Avigdor Kaplan declined to comment in Biran’s name.

Biran only appeared in court on Tuesday because he was ordered to after Bank Hapoalim – Mega’s biggest creditor – insisted he attend.

Born in Poland and a Holocaust survivor, Biran is the senior partner in a law firm that bears his name, and has an estimated net worth of 1.2 billion shekels ($320 million). Most of that fortune was made in the lucrative business of advising kibbutzim and moshavim on how to get their land re-zoned for residential construction, starting in the early 1990s.

Among his clients were Kibbutz Ramat Rachel at the edge of Jerusalem, Moshav Bareket near Ben-Gurion Airport, Moshav Kfar Malal and Kibbutz Galil Yam. They all involved big projects – Bareket’s land, for instance, eventually became the Airport City business center. Biran was also the guiding force behind the giant Tel Aviv Wholesale Market real estate development.

However, the re-zoning business dried up after 2002 when the social activist group Keshet Mizrahi won a ruling that in the name of social justice, the kibbutzim and moshavim could no longer keep the 27%-29% of all the profits from re-zoned land for themselves, as had been the case.

In spite of the fortune he made in land deals, Biran also presented himself as a socialist, and frequently expressed concern about Israel’s widening social gaps. That, however, did not incline him to meet with Mega workers, 1,000 of whom are being let go as part of a massive downsizing of the chain.

In 2008 Biran published a book that later appeared in English called “Opportunism: How to Change the World – One Idea at a Time.” It called for the “redistribution of the wealth not yet distributed,” although mostly through a fairer division of intellectual property rights.

In a 2011 interview with Haaretz, Biran observed, “Neither neoliberalism nor the central-planning systems solved the problem of poverty or of social gaps. Today, 20% of Americans control 80% of the country’s wealth, and 1% controls 50% of the property. Globally, more than 1 billion people live on less than a dollar a day. The widening of the gaps is a sign of failure, especially as wealth continues to grow dramatically.”

Biran relied on David Wiessman, a relative, to guide the rise of the Alon group and the Mega supermarket chain over the last decade. But when Mega’s business unraveled, Biran forced him out as Alon Blue Square CEO at the start of this year, appointing Kaplan in his place to solve Mega’s problems at the lowest financial cost possible.