The Bottom Line / The Final Straw

We met with him just a few days ago, the week Bank Hapoalim announced its stunning fourth-quarter provisioning of NIS 2 billion for doubtful debt. The CEO, Eli Yones, seemed most cheerful and satisfied.

We met with him just a few days ago, the week Bank Hapoalim announced its stunning fourth-quarter provisioning of NIS 2 billion for doubtful debt. The CEO, Eli Yones, seemed most cheerful and satisfied.

"I very much wanted the job and I very much enjoy what I do," he said. At no stage in the conversation did his status at the bank seem in question. When asked what it is like to run a bank with some of its shareholders in serious financial difficulty, he simply dodged the question, though that very issue would prove fatal to his status.

He did relate that when serving as the accountant-general at the treasury, he was constantly pressured by the political agendas of the minister in charge, but he learned to focus on his missions and advance them without focusing on difficulties.

Pressed, he admitted, "It is no great pleasure to work when the owners are stressed." But in the same breath, he added, "I didn't think life would be easy."

Until a few days ago, this new chief, who took the seat less than a year ago, seemed to have everything a new broom could want. He swept out the stables from top to bottom. During his short stint, he cut costs, fired 10 percent of the work force and wrote off no less than NIS 3.3 billion from the value of the bank's assets, NIS 2 billion alone during the fourth quarter.

No less importantly, while the managers of the other banks were forced to wriggle and explain their miserable performance and the huge write-offs, Yones had a great explanation for every problem at Hapoalim: the mistakes of his predecessors.

Yones knew the shareholders were mad at him, but he evidently did not understand quite how mad. Maybe he thought he could get past it, or even that they would not dare fire him and send the bank spiraling into managerial crisis, exposing the full force of their real problems.

Yones, formerly the CEO of General Bank, likes to note that he came to Bank Hapoalim with a background in trading securities. He gambled that he could weather the huge fourth-quarter write-offs. But he lost. Under terrific pressure from the shareholders, he tendered his resignation yesterday.

Ultimately, the man who triggered his resignation is his neighbor down the hall. Their offices share a wall. That man is deputy chairman Danny Dankner, who represents the Dankner family's controlling stake in the bank. Two weeks after the announcement to the Stock Exchange and the massive write-offs, it would seem the Dankners have not yet digested the magnitude of the deed.

The cause of their umbrage is clear. Writing off doubtful debt is more art than science, and is highly flexible. The Bank of Israel's supervisory department thoroughly inspected Bank Hapoalim, and demanded that it write off a few hundred million shekels on its loans to hotels. But the Dankners felt that Yones' hand was heavy and that he was too submissive to the Bank of Israel.

Unlike the Arisons and their representative, Shlomo Nehama, Hapoalim's results are live or die for the Dankners. They borrowed tremendous sums to buy their stake. The more it writes off, the greater its losses on paper become and the more remote the hopes of future dividends, which could be used to repay debt.

The most painful blow of all for the Dankners must have come when rival bank Bank Leumi published its 2002 financials. Although Leumi's credit portfolio is of no higher quality than Hapoalim's, its CEO announced a mere NIS 622 million write-off for the fourth quarter - one third of the amount Yones set aside.

Leumi's move, possibly the final piece of evidence that Yones had been too generous with the red pen, irked the Dankners more than they could take. The crisis was a matter of time. The Dankners created the crisis, Yones defended his decisions. Ultimately they all trooped to the biggest cheese of all for a ruling.

The biggest shareholder in the bank, Shari Arison, chose preserving harmony among the shareholders over Yones' career. He had no choice but to step down.

If Bank Leumi had announced write-offs of NIS 2 billion, he probably would have kept his job.

Beyond the personal story of Eli Yones, the affair begs questions about the quality of management at Bank Hapoalim. Any bank, and certainly the biggest one in the nation, has to consider more than the personal agendas of its owners, but also its long-term stability, its customers, and the stability of the entire banking establishment.

The affair of Eli Yones, who was essentially axed for failing to assure dividends for the Dankners, could be a warning sign for his successor, and should set off sirens at the Bank of Israel's supervisory department.