Bigger Man With an Ax. A Profile

When Avraham Bigger served as CEO of General Bank, one day he dropped by one of the bank's big borrowers. At some point during the conversation, he went to the bathroom, and that did the trick.

Upon returning, he terminated ended the meeting and told the bank workers to cut off credit to that company. Why? The window in the toilet had been broken. "Either they don?t have the money to fix it, or they don't care that it's broken. Either way these are people we don't want to work with," he repeats what he told the workers at the time. To avoid any doubt as to his judgment, he adds: "A year later, they went bankrupt."

Not many question his judgment, or other characteristics of his that arise from that story. Especially, Nochi Dankner and Zadik Bino, not the most trusting of men: they have no questions either. List the companies at which Bigger has worked and you'll find both Dankner and Bino at the top: Cellcom and Super-Sol, Makhteshim Agan (Dankner), and Paz, First International Bank (Bino). Both employ him, one as worker and one as partner, to cure their ailing companies. All he needs to do the job is two days a week, at least NIS 370,000 a month and bonuses running in the millions, and trust him; he'll make that company turn around like a prima ballerina. That's what he does.

Most recently Dankner named him to chair Makhteshim Agan, and shortly afterwards, named him CEO as well. His entry point was the company's poor results for the third quarter of 2006.

Dankner sent Bigger to Makhteshim Agan for the same reason he named him chairman of Super-Sol: to shake it up.

For the moment, he's appointed Bigger to manage Makhteshim Agan for just one year. Some see that as a sign that shortly, Bigger will tap the chief financial officer, Eli Assraf, to be the next CEO at the agrochemicals giant. Or possibly, the business development veep, Danny Porat. Both are considered key personalities at Makhteshim Agan.

Meanwhile, Bigger is still holding other positions at Caesarea Development Corporation, Super-Sol and Makhteshim Agan, but he is relinquishing his positions at Cellcom (which Dankner also owns), and at Bino's company Paz, and at General Bank.

Usually when he's called in, Bigger sweeps out the old-guard management, declares "I need more than a month to see where the sickness is," and hacks at costs. He does not cavil at starting to wield his ax on the payroll, as the hundreds of people laid off from the companies he's run can attest. Unions? Don't make him laugh. Negotiations - he'll consider it.

His last two years have been spent at Super-Sol, where he is a very, very active chairman, and the retail chain's reports show the results. Dankner has already rewarded him with bonuses of millions, for the acquisition of the bankrupt chain Clubmarket and improving Super-Sol's own business.

Bigger has made a fortune from his creamy employment contracts, his private business, his investments in hi-tech and in old-economy companies, and from his business relations with the French branch of the Rothschild family. He's also the very active chairman of the Caesarea Development Corporation, which the Rothschilds own.

That is why his main office is at the national park of Caesarea.

Some neighbors

Bigger actually began his career at the Finance Ministry budgets department, during the days of Pinchas Sapir. His first stop afterwards was Trans Asiatic Oil, which belonged jointly to Iran and Israel.

But he left that the company after the fall of the Shah. Zvi Zur, a former chief of staff and at the time the CEO of Clal Industries, opened the door to him and gave him various managerial tasks. Bigger lasted five years there, then moved into banking, joining General Bank, which belonged to the Rothschilds. He began as an accountant and after three years, was named CEO.

The bank's business had been stagnant. Bigger turned it around, turning it into a sort of boutique bank.

Boutique is a pretty word, but the painful manpower cuts at the banks were anything but. He even leased out offices in the bank's building on Rothschild Blvd: "There were two important neighbors in the building, Zadik Bino on the top floor, who rented an office after leaving First International Bank, and downstairs, a lawyer named Nochi Dankner," he smiles.

He has good reason to smile: it was the upstairs neighbor who arranged his next job. "One day Bino walked into my office and said, 'How about becoming the CEO of Paz?' After two days, we had a deal."

A lot of work at Paz

Bigger had his work cut out for him at Paz. The company was contending with reform in Israel's energy sector, a falling market share, and inefficiency. Bigger shares the credit for turning around that company with Bino. It took a year, he says.

As CEO, Bigger received a bitty little stock allocation of 0.7%, which is worth quite a bit these days. After 3.5 years at the company, he decided to leave, he says: sources say the real reason was conflict of opinion with Bino. Bigger felt Bino was too involved in the management. Bigger says: "I have no monopoly over wisdom," but apparently, he is not big on being told what to do.

Then he changed direction. moments after telling Haaretz that he would be devoting his time to private business, he took the job of CEO at Menorah Holdings (TASE: MORA)

Within a short time, he had a plan to streamline the insurance company's business, firing between 100 to 500 people, he told the press. But he had no chance to carry out his grandiose plan: within a year he was history at the company, but he walked away with NIS 3.5 million in pay and bonuses.

That was the last time Bigger served as hired help. In 1998 he established Bigger Investments and Holdings, ownership of which he shares with his wife.

His best-known investment is his partnership with Zadik Bino in Caniel. They may have parted in bitterness, but they bridged their differences the moment an appropriate business opportunity arose, and brought in Ehud Ben-Shach, who replaced Bigger at Paz. "I hold no grudges," Bigger says: "Business is business."

Don't threaten him

Caniel's main asset is land it owns, that is completely undervalued in the company's books.

When Bigger comes to heal a company, the first thing he tends to do is slash prices, to attract consumers and regain market share. That strategy has a price, naturally.

The workers at Caniel were not thrilled with their new owners, nor was the management. Shortly after Bigger et al took over, they started discussing restructuring and firing 100 of the 600 employees. First to go was the CEO over the previous five years, Eli Admoni.

Bigger is tough. So was the Caniel union, and it didn't settle for burning Bigger in effigy. Workers burst into the office of Ilana Bigger, called one of the three Bigger daughters and told her they'd murder her father.

While denying that the threats frightened him, Bigger admits it is not nice to see his wife and daughters in fear, and that's something that he does not forgive. He refuses to talk with the Caniel labor representative behind the threats to this day: "You threatened me with murder, I told him. I have nothing to say to you."

Hate letters started to arrive when he took the vice-chairmanship at Caesarea Development, protests from people living in the area who complained about the fat cats living in their little emirate, who were exempt from the laws of the country: an old agreement with the Rothschilds with the state about their lands, made that true. Bigger at that point set out on a battle that might make one think (if one doesn't know him) that all he wants is to narrow social gaps.

His office in Caesarea Development is beautiful and overlooks the sea. The décor is simple but the furnishings are top of the line. There is a small sign: Bigger is Better.

Bigger, 60, thinks that 75 is an appropriate age to retire. Meanwhile his list of missions has been growing. His cronies say he decided to take the work at Makhteshim Agan because he wanted the challenge, and there's plenty of that at Makhteshim Agan.