Taking Stock / The CEO Who Succeeded Too Much

Savvies say it all began and ended with the Dankner family. When a bank has shareholders and directors who can't pay interest on the loans they took from another bank, its managers can't run amok with doubtful debt provisioning. Certainly not of a scope that would imperil the bank's ability to pay the dividends that the Dankners so desperately need.

The super-savvies say exactly the opposite. CEO Eli Yones' decision to set aside tremendous sums for iffy debt in the fourth quarter served the Dankners, who are major shareholders, because it cleaned the slate, freeing Bank Hapoalim to restore its dividend policy in 2003.

Conspiracy buffs retort that the Dankners realized Yones wouldn't give them dividends in 2003, either. Meanwhile, they continue, the other major shareholders - the Arisons and the Americans - were displeased by the performance of Bank Hapoalim's stock.

You could come up any number of reasons why Yones was deposed, but it probably all boils down to one thing: His character and the expectations of the bank's owners.

Nobody ever crowned Eli Yones the greatest banker to ever hit Israel, or a strategist of rare talent. His achievements as CEO of General Bank during the 1990s were trivial. He was appointed to lead Bank Hapoalim by default, mainly because the shareholders wanted to get rid of Amiram Sivan as fast as they could.

Let's do lunch, sometime

But one thing you have to say about Yones: He's nobody's lap-dog. He likes to make the calls. He has self-confidence, he likes the media. He may be a suspicious type, but he's also a combative one. He may seem conceited at times, but the point is, he doesn't leap up and dance to anybody else's tune.

A few months after Yones took the helm at Bank Hapoalim, the bank's shareholders realized he wasn't about to lick their hands for giving him the opportunity. He didn't feel he owed them a thing. If he felt beholden to anything, it was to his own image and Bank Hapoalim's success. Nor did he mean to devote most of his time, as so many CEOs do, to nurturing relationships with the directors.

Yones thought he was the Galia Maor of Bank Hapoalim - a sole monarch availing himself of the board when he needed something.

The demand that the Bank of Israel's Supervisor of Banks raised a few weeks back, to set aside large sums for specific problem borrowers in the fourth quarter, was grist to his mill. Yones could have spread the provisions over two or three quarters, but he preferred to get it over with in one fell swoop.

Start afresh

He thus hoped to kill three birds with one stone - to clear the table, to gain the image of the only total pro in the entire banking establishment, who presents the real picture unvarnished, and to send a message to the market that the owners - who had been involved in running the bank and in extending loans - had messed up. He also sent a message to them: Watch out for me. I'm the boss.

Yones knew the massive provision for doubtful debt was a slap in the owners' face. But he was convinced they'd have to accept his independence, and that they couldn't afford to oust a CEO so shortly after appointing him, given the instability of the marketplace and the banking system.

He was wrong. His success in carrying out wide-scale dismissals, and the provisioning, didn't earn him brownie points among the shareholders. "He succeeded too much," said a source at the bank's management Sunday.

Each of the directors and shareholders at the bank has his own agenda, which isn't necessarily Bank Hapoalim's agenda. One wants respect, another wants to use the bank to leverage his business, a third doesn't know what he wants but has advisers who know what they want.

Yet, in recent weeks, a coalition of interests began to coalesce. Everybody wanted to get rid of this CEO who failed to give them the respect they felt they deserved. Or, at least clip his wings.

It didn't have to end in tears. Yones could have ignored the leaks to the press, tried to work matters out. He could have promised to be a good boy and keep his job, which is one of the plummiest around. But that didn't sit with his character.

Yones was there in the winter of 2002, when Shlomo Nehama and the Dankners cooked up the ouster of Amiram Sivan. He saw how Sivan was the last to know. He saw how miserably Sivan's distinguished 15-year career at the bank ended. He did not want a rerun at his expense.

If he was to leave, then the sooner the better, Yones knew. As things stand, everybody knows he's leaving over a conflict of opinions, not because he failed. In any case, his pay for the next two years is assured under his employment contract. Some NIS 7.5 million for a year's work can buy a lot of tissues to wipe away tears.

Bank Hapoalim is a huge, well-oiled machine. It can get over losing Eli Yones, just as it easily got past losing its legendary former CEO, Amiram Sivan. But, in the long run, clearly, the involvement of the owners in running Bank Hapoalim is problematic. Checks and balances are required. Imposing them should be the next mission of the Supervisor of Banks.