Taking Stock / A Story of 16 Powerful Families

In the public relations war between Dun & Bradstreet and Business Data Israel (BDI), the latter won two points on Sunday.

Both companies publish a long list of reports and rankings, designed in part to generate headlines that promote their brand and bring them clients.

BDI, the younger of the two companies, found an original way to push its list ranking Israel's top companies. Instead of drearily listing the biggest company, then the second biggest and so on, and recording which sectors strengthened or waned, BDI came up with a much sexier headline: Just 16 families are sitting on 20 percent of the revenues generated by Israel's 500 leading companies.

They named names, too: the Ofer brothers, Arison, Nochi Dankner, the Dankner group, the Hamburgers, Mozi Wertheim, the Zisapel clan, Lev Leviev, Micky Federmann, Haim Saban, Eliezer Fishman, Shachar and Kass, the Strausses, Shlomo Shmeltzer and Yitzhak Tshuva.

The headline did its work. Within hours the BDI report achieved top billing, in terms of hits, on TheMarker's Web site. In talkbacks, readers stormed about the families' domination of the economy.

Yep, a story about the Families Controlling the Economy always works. All you have to do is toss out the word "families" and the message is clear: Once upon a time we had an open, democratic, free market, but in recent years a cluster of families took over and are sucking its blood. You can toss in the link between "wealth" and "government," and mix in a mention of "media" as well: In short, our situation is deteriorating.

There is no question that the economy suffers from the overconcentration of power in too few hands, and from a weak governmental and regulatory system that customarily kowtows to the wealthy and will not, or cannot, prevent them from stepping all over the public interest.

But we should look at the situation's development over time. What did the list look like 10 years ago? Who owned those assets taken over by the 16 families?

The Ofer brothers: This family, which has taken the most fire for making a fool of the state, controls The Israel Corporation, which owns controlling interests in Israel Chemicals, Oil Refineries and Zim. To whom did these assets belong a decade ago? Some to the state - Israel Chemicals and Zim - and some to another family, the Eisenbergs.

Arison: Shari Arison, heir to Ted Arison, today controls Bank Hapoalim, the biggest bank in Israel. And 10 years back? The state owned the bank, and before it the Histadrut labor federation. Or: the bank's management, and before them, the politicians who controlled the Histadrut.

The Borovich family: Controls El Al, Sonol gasoline and Tambour paint. Who owned them 10 years ago? The state, meaning the managers and transport ministers over the ages, and the Recanati family, which sold Sonol and then Tambour to the Boroviches.

Nochi Dankner: He controls Cellcom, Clal Insurance, Nesher cement, Azorim real estate, Property & Building Corporation and Supersol, all through IDB. Ten years ago? Yup, them again, the Recanatis.

The Dankners: They have a sliver of the controlling interest in Bank Hapoalim, but had to divest all their many other assets in recent years after sinking into financial trouble. Who controlled Bank Hapoalim a decade ago? Arison.

The Hamburgers: They control the insurance company Harel Hamishmar, Israel's third biggest insurance company, which is worth NIS 4 billion on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. Twenty years ago Harel was a tiny little insurance company controlled by Hasneh, Migdal Insurance and The Israel Phoenix Assurance Company.

Mozi Wertheim: He controls the Central Bottling Company (Coca-Cola Israel) and has part of the controlling interest in United Mizrahi Bank. Ten years ago he controlled the Central Bottling Company together with Abe Feinberg, since deceased, while the state controlled Mizrahi. Before the state, Hapoel Mizrahi - Hapoel activists - controlled it.

The Zisapels: They own dozens of high-tech companies, some of which are listed on Wall Street and some of which are still in the startup stage. Who owned these companies a decade ago? Nobody: most didn't exist. Some 90 percent of Israel's high-tech industry arose in the last 15 years, and investors in the sector are mostly new players or foreigners.

Lev Leviev: He controls Africa Israel and a slew of diamond companies active in Russia, Angola, Europe and the U.S. Who owned Africa Israel a decade ago? Bank Leumi did. Who controlled the diamond businesses? Nobody: They hadn't been founded yet. Leviev did it himself, fighting the DeBeers cartel tooth and nail.

Haim Saban: From September he, Mori Arkin of Agis fame, and the Apax investment fund will control Bezeq, Israel's biggest telecommunications company. Bezeq owns Pelephone Communications, the Yes satellite TV company, Bezeq International and other companies. Who owned Bezeq until last week? The state, meaning, the company's board and politicians.

Eliezer Fishman: Controls Jerusalem Economic Corporation, Industrial Building Corporation, Fishman Networks, the Globes evening newspaper and Golden Lines (Kavei Zahav). He also owns shares in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's biggest daily paper, Golden Channels (Arutzei Zahav) and Visa CAL. Who controlled these companies 10 and 20 years before? Some - Jerusalem and Industrial Building - belonged to the state. Fishman himself established some: Golden Lines, for instance, had been set up to compete with the state-controlled phone company Bezeq. Some belonged to other businessmen who partnered with Fishman.

The Federmanns: They control Elbit Systems and the Dan hotels chain. Ten years ago Elbit Systems belonged to the Recanatis. The Federmanns set up the Dan hotels themselves.

Jacob Shachar and Israel Kass: They control the Mayer Cars & Trucks import company and The Israel Phoenix Assurance Company. Ten years before, Phoenix belonged to the Hackmey family.

The Strausses: Control Strauss-Elite Industries, which had belonged to David Federman 10 years before.

Shlomo Shmeltzer: Controls the Shlomo car-leasing group and a long list of companies engaged in energy and systems for vehicles. Who owned them 10 years before? He did, mainly, but back then they were minnows.

Yitzhak Tshuva: Owns Delek Group and real estate companies operating in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Who owned Delek 10 years ago? The Recanatis. Who owned the real estate companies? Nobody: For the most part, Tshuva founded them.

If the message isn't clear yet, let's spell it out. Other than the Strausses, who took over Elite in an anticompetitive move that received the trustbuster's permission anyway, almost all the 16 families in the BDI list bought their companies over the last 10 years from the government, the banks, or the Recanatis.

Businesses not bought from the state, the banks or the Histadrut were generally new ones set up by the families. The most glaring example is high-tech, a giant industry created mostly in the last 15 years.

One can therefore ask a question of values: What is better - an economy controlled by the government, the Histadrut labor federation, the politicians and the banks, or an economy in which 16 families control 20 percent of the income of the biggest companies?

We believe the answer is better an economy in private hands than in government/political ones. It is generally more efficient, stronger and richer.

The problem is that in Israel, aggressive privatization was not accompanied by the establishment of strong mechanisms to protect consumers and the public interest.

But make no mistake. The problem is not "the families." It is the politicians, the regulators and the rest of the watchdog pack responsible for overseeing the free market. They are supposed to protect us, but prefer to bend before the rich and powerful.