Moshe “Muzi” Wertheim, a Mossad agent who became a billionaire by getting the rights to bottle Coca Cola in Israel, died at age 86 on Wednesday.
Central Bottling Company, which he formed in 1967 with the American investor Abraham Feinberg, was a cash cow that today controls 40% of the Israeli drinks market and generates annual revenues of as much as 6 billion shekels ($1.6 billion) and operating profits in the hundreds of millions of shekels.
Cola profits enabled Wertheim to build a business empire that included a 21.9% stake in Israel’s fourth-largest bank Mizrahi Tefahot, control of the Channel 2 television franchisee Keshet and a host of holding in companies like real-estate developer Alony Hetz, BMW importer Kamor and a financial services firm. He also invested in energy exploration.
Unlike many of the other tycoons of the last decade, Wertheim kept a relatively low profile and survived the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis. However, his group of companies was among those in the list under orders to sell off assets under the 2013 Business Concentration Law, which sets a 2019 deadline for the group to sell off either his major financial holding (Mizrahi) or his non-financial holding (Central Bottling).
Wertheim expressed strong criticism of the 2011 social-justice protests that targeted tycoons and helped coax the government to undertake a host of economic reforms, including the Concentration Law. Talking about the tent city that mushroomed on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard that summer – which briefly included a guillotine, a symbol of the French Revolution – Wertheim called the protest an “ugly wave.”
In an interview with the daily Maariv, he said: “People will sober up and move on. I saw the guillotine on Rothschild and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s thoughtless turbulence. It’s an ugly wave that will soon pass.”
But he wasn’t against all the reforms that followed. “I have to say that in my opinion there are correct elements in the business concentration committee’s report – but I don’t think criticism of pyramid groups is justified,” he said.
Wertheim was born to a religious family in Jerusalem in 1930 and studied at yeshiva. After serving in the Palmach pre-state militia, he continued his education at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he earned degrees in law and business. During his studies, he was recruiting by the Mossad spy agency and served in Switzerland and Italy.
At age 35, however, he quit and took a job as chief financial officer at pharmaceutics company Assia, which later evolved into Teva. Two years later he formed Central Bottling, whose products include Prigat juices, Neviot bottled water and the Israeli franchise for Carlsberg beer. It also controls the dairy company Tara and the Tabor Winery.
Wertheim became sole shareholder in 2001, buying out Feinberg’s heir after his partner died.
In the 1990s, Wertheim bought his stake in Mizrahi and well as 51% of Keshet from the Israeli-American media magnate Haim Saban. Like Central Bottling, Keshet generated big profits after it went on the air in 1993, but a new license with new terms and a contraction of the ad market put an end to that. In the last two years, Keshet’s shareholders have had to inject cash into the company.
In recent years, Wertheim had begun to move his assets to his children Dudi, 58, and Dorit, 60. In 2012, he gave his son a 63% holding in Central Bottling and his daughter the rest. A year later, he tried to transfer his Mizrahi stake under the same terms, but ran up against the terms of the Business Concentration Law that barred transferring a major financial company like a bank to the owners of a major non-financial company like Central Bottling.
As a result, control of the Mizrahi shares, worth today about 2.3 billion shekels, will go to a trustee until the family decides what to divest.