Taking Stock / Dedi, Izzy and Tami Too

Try to remember the blindingly obvious: Even if a businessman hails from the most distinguished of families, at the end of the day business is business.

Don't be scared. True, you're under terrific stress. You've just dropped one of the biggest bombshells to land on Israel's business sector in years. You filed for court protection for Clubmarket over NIS 1.4 billion in debts.

But in no time you'll discover the club isn't that bad. It's a platinum club, like El Al's PL club. So sit back, relax, summon the stewardess, have a drink. There may be some turbulence on the ride, a bit of pressure at passport control, but at the end of the day you will find you are on a road well traveled by some of Israel's most prominent businessmen.

In front, in first class, sit Leon and Oudi Recanati. Say hello, but nicely: these are the aristocracy. Leon and Oudi are two of the richest men in the land; until two years ago they still ruled the IDB group together.

Three years ago Leon and Oudi gave Ami Erel, manager of IDB group company Discount Investment Corporation, the green light to let its subsidiary, the cable company Tevel, declare bankruptcy. Banks and suppliers were forced to forgive debt to the tune of hundreds of millions of shekels.

Was Discount Investment unable to support Tevel? Of course it could have, but it would not have been convenient. There were extenuating circumstances: a partner who didn't want to pay up, a tough economic environment, the implosion of the telecommunications business. So what did they do? They filed for creditor protection; like a kid who stops the game by yelling "Nuff!" they rendered Tevel immune - I'm not going to pay my debts and you can't touch me.

What happened as a result? Nothing. Well, the very next day Bank Hapoalim chairman Shlomo Nehama went berserk, pounding on the desk and screaming he wouldn't write off one single shekel the Recanatis owed, adding they wouldn't be able to borrow a sou unless they stood behind Tevel. But then he calmed down. Leon and Oudi are very distinguished clients and all the banks want them. So does Shlomo.

A nice man with a Chivas

Look, next to Oudi is sitting a nice man with a Chivas in hand. He's smiling and swirling the ice. Yossi, a great guy, another member of the multi-millionaires club who wanted to play TV. A few years ago he tossed maybe NIS 60 million, NIS 70 million into Channel 10, but came to realize television business is expensive, so he did the same thing. Nuff! Stop playing. He went to court and came back half a year later with a great arrangement: Pay the suppliers half the debt and as for Leumi, come tomorrow. You know what, not tomorrow, come back in seven years, we'll talk, reschedule, roll over. Don't worry.

But our time is short and the First Class section is crowded. It's crammed with distinguished businessmen who woke up one day and decided they don't want to support one of their companies anymore. So they let it belly-flop (and do drop by coach: You'll find Yossi Levy of Netanya's poorer district. The banks foreclosed on his house, throwing him onto the sidewalk, because he missed six monthly mortgage payments. But you won't find you have much to talk about with him.)

Naturally, Dedi, Izzy and Tami, crowded though First Class may be, your place is reserved. The collapse of Clubmarket is one of the most spectacular implosions we've seen in years. In the past, the banks suffered the most from such affairs, but this time the shock is being shared by hundreds of suppliers, and could ripple out to thousands of workers and in fact, rock the whole retail marketing sector.

The big question resonating throughout corporate Israel and the banking sector is why you let Clubmarket fall. If our memory serves, then Tami Mozes received NIS 60-70 million net from selling her shares in Yedioth Ahronoth, you said so time and again, and the money is just sitting there in deposits, accruing interest. Putting it otherwise, you didn't lack the means.

The question is especially fascinating because you have a few other businesses, and they are not small. This week you celebrated the six-month anniversary of taking over the national airline, El Al, which owes the banks several billion shekels. You also bought the Sonol fuel company, and Tambour, the paint-maker. In other words, leverage and bank credit are not foreign to your business lexicon.

Another burning question is what happened to those marketing mavens you put at Clubmarket. Its CEO, until yesterday at least, was Yaakov Ginsburg, who had served many a long year at rival chain Supersol. On the board, aside from members of the Borovich and Mozes families, were two big guns of the marketing world: Yossi Rosen, who chaired Blue Square Israel and today serves as CEO of The Israel Corporation; and Jacob Gelbard, who had also led Blue Square and today is chief executive at Pelephone Communications.

With financial clout and personal power like that, what went wrong? Maybe people can manage aviation and energy companies, but lack the knack for food retail? Maybe the top people at top-tier Israeli companies discovered that managing a medium-range company, a young player in a hyper-competitive arena, is entirely more complex?

Or maybe it transpired that the synergies between gasoline, planes and supermarkets are more complicated and less obvious than the presentations showed?

True, "Rating" magazine - another Borovich-Mozes group product - did well in recent years, being pushed powerfully in Clubmarket outlets. But its profit is a mere NIS 2 million a year, while Clubmarket lost, oh, about a quarter of a billion shekels, rendering the word synergy a little faded.

Here's a final word for all those businessmen, bankers and investors. Try to remember the blindingly obvious: Even if a businessman hails from the most distinguished of families, such as Borovich and Mozes, even if the businessman has the most distinguished of personal records and the purest of intentions, at the end of the day business is business. Loans taken should be serviced and repaid. But if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it's probably a duck.