Meir Uzan Sells Shekel Agency to the Phoenix

Meir Uzan owes Joseph Bachar in a big way. Bachar's reform of the capital markets made it imperative to find alternatives to the banks for marketing pension products, and insurance agencies were the main beneficiaries.

Uzan, 57, built his Shekel agency from nothing and turned it into the largest independent insurance agency in Israel. And now he is selling it for NIS 130 million to the Israel Phoenix Insurance Company, all thanks to the revolution in the pension market.

In addition to getting a record price for his agency, Uzan will serve as chairman of the Shekel group for another five years for a salary of NIS 2 million a year, plus bonuses and options based on profits.

Phoenix will conduct due diligence and sign a detailed agreement soon, but the company has already committed to the price. Any revelations that would alter the total price by less than 10% will not be considered cause for changing the value of the deal.

Shekel specializes in providing insurance to salaried employees through their work places. The agency works with both employees and employers. It supervises the various pension payments from employers to pension funds or insurance companies and takes care of transferring and clearing the funds.

The Shekel group also provides other services through various subsidiaries, such as consulting, software and family wealth management. It provides pension management services for 70,000 workers and 2,500 employers. In 2007, the agency collected NIS 1 billion in premiums and managed NIS 7 billion in assets.

Uzan, who lives in the north Tel Aviv neighborhood of Zahala, is married and has five children.

In the 1970s, Uzan studied economics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Everyone who studies economics in Jerusalem wavers between working for the Bank of Israel and the Finance Ministry," he said. "But a friend told me he was starting work at an insurance agency, so I started working as a student in Phoenix's Eyal Gur Aryeh agency. I never made it to the treasury."

Uzan started working in insurance in 1976, and in 1979, he established Shekel. "When I was young, I made a living by selling life insurance and other elementary insurance door-to-door. Over the years, I gave up the basic insurance field and concentrated on life insurance, in particular on providing services to companies. When we started working with companies, we offered services for handling workers' entire [insurance] portfolios, and not just specific policies we collected fees on. And that is how we grew," explained Uzan.

There have been repeated rumors of Shekel's impending sale over the course of its 30-year history, but after years of denials, Uzan decided that the time had come for his exit. Since he has no clear successor from within the family, it was a good time to take advantage of the record prices and get out.

Clal was the first insurance firm to negotiate with Uzan, but the two disagreed on how to price the agency. However, Clal's interest brought other insurers in its wake, and Uzan started talking with Phoenix and Menora-Mivtahim.

For Phoenix, and its CEO Yaheli Sheffi, the purchase is a major strategic move. The company is weak in the pension market and needed a way to enter quickly, and on a large scale. The acquisition of Shekel will move Phoenix into second place in handling employee pensions, ahead of Clal but behind Migdal.

It also leaves Harel and Menora-Mivtahim as the only big insurance companies without their own insurance agencies to handle employers and employees in the pension market. Migdal and Clal had both previously bought large agencies: Tmura for Clal and Mivtah Simon for Migdal.

Menora-Mivtahim seems to be the big loser. Even though Mivtahim may be the largest pension fund in Israel, it remains without any major marketing channel of its own.

The biggest remaining independent insurance agency in the pension business is Kali, with assets under management of NIS 5.2 billion. As opposed to Uzan, however, owner Menahem Kali has a son ready and waiting to take over the business and may not be interested in selling any time soon.