Taking Stock / Home-grown Oligarchs

Never have so few earned so much money in so little time.

Grizzled TASE vets (meaning, market players 30-plus years old) remember the boom of the early 1990s, when dozens of new stars were born in Israel's capital market and the business sector.

Younger market players remember the late-1990s bonanza, driven by hi-tech, while the really aged can go back as far as the early 1980s, which ended in the crash of bank shares.

Yet how pathetic those young men in their newfound riches seem compared with what has happened in the last two years.

Two years ago, Idan Ofer was sitting in his house at Arsuf, in the company of billionaire Arkadi Gaidamak and his lawyer Ram Caspi, shaping a deal. Arkadi would hand over a $600 million check and get the Ofer family's holdings in The Israel Corporation, according to a company valuation of a billion dollars. But the deal fell through, happily for Ofer. Today, his company is worth more than $2.5 billion on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.

The billion dollars-plus-change that Sami and Idan Ofer made on The Israel Corporation is just the tip of the iceberg. Their privately held shipping and real estate ventures made far more, thanks to the unprecedented boom in commodities, energy and shipping.

Dudi Wiessman: Four years ago, the investing duo of Yossi Vardi and Eitan Raff, who had founded the Alon group, decided to sell their 3.5 percent stake in it. At the time, the company was thought to be worth $150 million, which was five times its value 10 years earlier.

They asked Dudi Wiessman, the CEO, how much he thought the company would be worth in a few years. Half a billion dollars, he answered on the spot. They smiled and sold him the shares; Vardi always did have a penchant for getting out early, putting his money in the bank and letting others take the risk and reward.

Since then, Wiessman has also taken over Blue Square Israel - seconds before the boom on the stock market. He bought the U.S. operations of the Total-Fina group for peanuts, and has now agreed to buy the Sonol group from the Borovich family.

Two months ago, Wiessman floated Alon's U.S. subsidiary at a company valuation of $730 million, which is four times the price he paid. But that isn't all. The company's stock has shot up 50 percent thanks to the incredible energy boom. Today it's trading at a market capitalization of $1.2 billion.

The value of the Alon group is rapidly nearing a billion dollars, double what Wiessman had expected in his wildest dreams.

Yitzhak Tshuva: Unlike many of the stock market stars of recent years, he owns a substantial chunk of his publicly traded company, Delek Group. Through his company Tashluz, he owns 73 percent of Delek, which has risen 50 percent in market valuation this year to $1.2 billion, and his shares alone are worth $900 million.

Tshuva had snatched Delek from under the nose of the Recanati family at a company valuation of $400 million. But if you factor in the dividends he's withdrawn since then, then effectively he got it for nothing, or even a negative.

How did he do it? Lots of luck. A year after buying the company, he discovered a tremendous reservoir of natural gas in the sea, and closed a long-term contract selling it to the Israel Electric Corporation. Real estate he's bought just goes up and up in price; just about every deal he touches turns to gold.

Bakers and investors like to call him a gambler, always adding, "but a lucky one." Five months ago, he bought a refinery in Texas, La Gloria, for $78 million and it has already tripled in value. Nobody was surprised.

Lev Leviev: In all the fuss surrounding Arkadi Gaidamak's purchase of Beitar Jerusalem, ostensibly to gain legitimacy in the Israeli business scene, most people forget that, despite his troubles with the French police, he bought a hefty chunk of an Israeli company seven years ago.

But his relations with Africa Israel owner Lev Leviev cooled and four years ago he sold Leviev his shares at a company valuation of less than half a billion dollars. In the last two years, Africa Israel has tripled its value and now trades at a market capitalization of $1.7 billion.

The stories about the oligarchs are colorful, but they pale compared with the actual figures of what these men have made in the last three years. Here, too, most of the wealth derived from the boom in energy, oil, refining and commodities. But the figures are in the billions, not the millions.

Most of the ex-Russian oligarchs are Jews with homes in Herzliya Pituach, who would be delighted to invest here for the sake of local and international legitimacy. The temptation to accept their money is just as keen.

But we have our own home-grown oligarchy of billionaires that has sprung up overnight. We haven't had a chance to grasp its size or digest the ramifications on the economy and society. The Russian oligarchs would do well to have patience. There's money to spare at the moment, and we're stuffed to the gills with the newly enriched.