Tycoons and Monopolies. Ze’evi. – Part II 21.04.13
Before I took time off to write blogs on films showing at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, in my economic series on Israel, I wrote on tycoons and billionaires to get a sense of many of the top individuals who have driven their own stories of rags to riches as well as the story of Israel’s rise into the top tier of developed countries. In the first one of this series, I wrote about the political and social as well as economic impacts of a dozen or so Israeli billionaires — including Shari and Micki Arison, the Ofer brothers, David Azrieli, Noam Gottesman, Arnon Michan, Meir Doron, Joseph Gelman, Marc Rich, and Haim Saban, many of whom live outside of Israel and made a good part of their fortunes outside Israel. I also wrote about two impressive but very different Mizrachi billionaires, Shilvan Eliahu and Yitzhak Tshuva. Today and tomorrow I want to concentrate on a smaller group of Israeli billionaires who also made their fortunes primarily in Israel, but come from an Ashkenazi or Sabra background. On Tuesday, I will write about the East European Israeli billionaires.
Gad Zeevi is an Israeli born tycoon who was accused of stock fraud and money laundering in 2006, disappeared from the public eye, went through a long trial until the judge declared him NOT guilty in March of 2011, finding that the sale of his shares “was neither false nor unreasonable”. As Judge Daniela Cherizli concluded, “There was no conspiracy, and I therefore acquit the accused of all charges in the indictment.” I begin at the end of the story because if you read the ruling, it becomes clear that when there is smoke, sometimes there is no fire. There is just deep suspicion about people who are worth billions. Some rich people are certainly guilty of making their money through fraudulent means. But making money is not itself fraudulent. Further, even the ultra rich can be subject to bullying by zealous prosecutors convinced that something was amiss.
Further, bureaucrats sometimes interfere with entrepreneurial activities and initiatives even when they are not against the law. In the 1990s, when Gad Zeevi made a move to acquire the controlling interest in Bank Mizrachi, though there was no law at the time against his effort, Ze’ev Abeles, the supervisor of banks, kept insisting that he had to inquire further into the Zeevi group of companies activities in Africa, endlessly postponing a decision, until Zeevi just gave up. As it has been said, the problem in Israel is not one of a normal bureaucracy with too many rules and too many levels of decision-making, but government functionaries who are as entrepreneurial about their duties as any businessman. They make up the rules as they go. Israel is burdened with an anti-bureaucracy bureaucracy, where bureaucrats practice the art of creative decision-making.
This occurs at all levels. When I was in Israel in the late seventies as a Lady Davis Visiting Professor at Hebrew University, I knew I had to get my VW camper van out of Israel before a year was up or I would be subject to a huge tax. I was due to leave with my oldest son from the Port of Haifa two days after my year was up. So I drove the camper van down to Haifa two days before the expiry of the period, just to be safe, and put it into the export area from which I could drive it onto the ship when I was leaving four days later. When I did this, the port authorities informed me that a small licensing fee had been due at six months and that I should go to the Jerusalem office where I lived to pay the fee and when I showed them the receipt, I would be permitted to take the VW van out of Israel.
The official was very helpful and gave me instructions on where to go on King George Street in Jerusalem and how much I would be required to pay. I had two days to accomplish this task as well as complete our packing and preparations to move three days hence. Early the next morning – at 7:00 a.m. – I stood in line on King George Street. I was second in line when the office opened at 8:00 a.m. By the time it opened, there were about twenty people waiting to get in. When the door opened, I asked the person where to go and she directed me to the second floor to pay license fees. I scurried up and was no longer second in line but about sixth and it took me until 9:45 a.m. to get to the front of the wicket.
I then showed my license and had the exact amount of lira (money had not yet been changed to the new Israel shekel) in hand to pay. The clerk condescendingly told me that a license fee was not due, but an import duty was. That office had moved two years ago. She tersely gave me an address. It was in a new industrial area of Jerusalem. I ran outside and grabbed a cab. It took twenty minutes to get there.
The line had about sixteen people in it when I got there at 10:22. I despaired, but quickly cheered up when it seemed to be moving reasonably quickly. I learned later that the reason the line moved so quickly was that most people were sent away to get more documents in order to complete the transaction. Further, the son of the Imam from Jerusalem was standing behind me in line and we struck up a very enjoyable and interesting conversation. When my turn came – it was then 11:30 a.m. – I handed over the license and my money through the wicket – only it was not quite a wicket.
Curtly, the clerk asked what this was for. I answered that it was to pay the foreign vehicle fee that was due at six months and that I had not know about previously. The clerk asked for the ownership papers for the vehicle. I told the clerk that I was required to leave the ownership papers at the Haifa Port. He said that I could not pay the fee without the ownership papers. I told him my situation and that I was in a Catch-22. I was leaving in another two days and could not get my vehicle out of the port any longer nor retrieve the ownership papers that had to be left with the vehicle. Yet I could not get the vehicle again to leave until I paid this fee.
He said, “Next.” In Hebrew, of course! I said I was not leaving the line until I could pay the fee. The Imam’s son encouraged me. This was his third time back in line because each time he was sent away and asked to bring another paper. The Israelis further down the line, instead of telling me to get out of the way, yelled, “Start a sit in.” I seemed to have the whole line behind me totally sympathetic to my plight and supporting me. The clerk announced that he was going on a tea break and closed the wicket.
He returned in twenty minutes – I was getting desperate because I knew government offices closed at 1:00 p.m. for the day. It was now almost noon. The clerk, without looking up, said I would have to go upstairs. He directed me to an official upstairs. That person would take care of the problem. I ran up the stairs, found the room, and was ushered in right away to see this official. I explained my plight. He asked, “What size of engine did the VW have?” I said I had no idea. He said that VW vans had either a 1200 or a 1600 cc engine. Again I said I had no idea. When he kept insisting on my trying to recall a figure, I said it must have been the larger figure because the VW I drove had lots of oomph. He asked whether I was sure. I said that I was not sure at all, but thought that must have been the case. He asked again whether I was sure. After the third time, to get the matter over, I said that I was pretty sure. So he gave me a signed slip with instructions and told me to go to the front of the line and see the clerk. I would not have to line up again.
I went to the front of the line – it was now 12:25 – and waited until the person being served finished. The Imam’s son was no longer there and I hoped he had received his license this time. No one in the line objected to my jumping the queue. I handed over my license, the money and the signed slip I had been given. He took the papers, counted the money and said that it was not enough. I said that was the amount I had been told in the port. He said that that was the amount for a 1200 cc engine. I had a 1600 cc engine. The amount required to be paid for a 1600 cc engine was three times the amount for a 1200 cc engine.
I despaired at my stupidity and failure to get the hints of the official upstairs. I asked in despair, “What can I do?” I had traded in all my excess lira and would have to go a bank and exchange more money and come back and I was not even sure I had that amount of cash freely available as I had transferred most of my assets back to Canada already. He said, wait a minute. I, and everyone else in the line, waited ten minutes. I was so embarrassed. I knew that those near the back of the line – there were about eight still lined up – could not possibly get served by 1:00. When he returned he told me that he would reduce the fee by half. I still did not have enough lira. There were no ATM machines then and the nearest bank was probably a mile away – we were in the boondocks.
I agreed to return the next day. He told me I would not have to line up. And true to his word, after I went to the bank first thing in the morning to obtain the extra lira I needed, I went right to the front of the line and within two minutes I had paid the fee and had the longed for stamped slip I needed. I left amazed at both the initiative of the bureaucrats and their obduracy. They could not and were not cowed by academics, imams or, as we shall see, billionaires. They were equal opportunity obstacles and innovators.
Gad Zeevi was a multi-billionaire. He owned part of Haifa’s Grand Canyon Mall, and real estate throughout Israel, Eastern Europe and the USA, owns the largest and best equipped private hospital in Israel and has been a pioneer in health tourism. He has investments in the media and in new hi-tech apps. He runs the largest import and freight forwarding agency with offices throughout Africa, Eastern Europe and America. He has been an importer and gained control of Japanauto in the late nineties to become the dominant importer of cars and trucks into Israel. The Ze’evi group is also onto the production, refining, distribution and sales of petroleum products both in Israel and the USA as well as in the construction and management of electric power stations. He has been, nevertheless, treated with much more bureaucratic interference than I was fitting to his wealth. And, possibly, sometimes more help. In some ways, however, Israel, in spite of now ranking with countries with the greatest gap between rich and poor, is still an egalitarian society.
When the Berlin Wall came down and Eastern European states initiated the privatization of their assets, Eastern European groups with money turned to pick up those assets at bargain basement prices. The Polish Group (Bagsik and Gasiorowski) was one of them. They decided to sell off their assets to do so. One was Paz Oil in Israel. They approached Gad Ze’evi to see if he was interested. They offered Paz to him at US$10 million less than they themselves had paid a year earlier because they saw much greater and faster profits in Eastern European assets then for sale. Ze’evi put a down payment of US$7.5 million and agreed to pay for the balance in equal installements every six months over the next four years. A contract was signed.
But it did not work out. During the due diligence period, Ze’evi claimed that something was amiss and refused to close the deal. Instead of backing off and absorbing losses for the work put in, Ze’evi took the Polish Group to court for refund of his deposit and legal costs. The issue went first to an arbitrator as provided in the contract and then to the courts and, as usual, dragged out for three years. Paz was tied up and the Polish Group sufered significant opportunity cost losses in not having the funds to gain control of Polish government assets. At the same time, Ze’evi had his $US7.5 million tied up and very large legal fees. The Polish Group lost even more, not only the lost opportunities to make large sums in other ways, but they finally sold Paz at one-quarter of the price that Ze’evi had agreed to pay. Both sides were huge losers.
The losses were not only financial. Although both sides poured money into public relations as part of their legal suit, both sides’ reputations suffered enormously. Gad Ze’evi was portrayed in terms bordering on antisemitic stereotypes. Further, his legal troubles had just begun. In March of 2001, he was arrested, along with others, and charged with fraud by the Israeli International Crimes Unit in what was called the Bezeq Affair. When Ze’evi purchased his 17.6% stake in Bezeq from Cable and Wireless for US$600 million in 1999, he evidently, as required by law, did not properly disclose his source of financing from Mikhail Chernoy who had come onto a large stash of cash when he sold control of the Bulgarian cell phone company to MobilTel. (I will have more to say on Mikhail Chernoy and his connection with Avigdor Lieberman in my last blog on Tycoons and Monopolies focused on the Eastern European Israeli billionaires.)
In 1999, Ze’evi had borrowed US$643 million from a consortium of Israel’s six largest banks led by the First International Bank of Israel. US$500 million of the loan was secured by the shares that he had purchased as well as a guarantee provided by a Swiss account controlled by Mikhail Chornoy for US$143 million. Evidently Mikhail Chernoy had not been disclosed as the one providing the guarantee. The banks claimed that, had they known, they would not have approved the loan.
When Ze’evi could not meet the terms of the loan, largely because of his losses in the Paz affair, the banks in 2002 put him into receivership and he lost control of the Bezeq stake. The receiver sold the shares in Bezeq for NIS 4.7 billion for a healthy profit, repaid the banks in full, repaid Chernoy US$107million ($36million had already been repaid in 2000) and enough held in trust until the courts settled the amount of interest owing to Chernoy. The balance went to Ze’evi. The criminal action, on the other hand, dragged on until 2009. Then, Tel-Aviv District Judge Oded Mudrik instructed that the Prosecutor settle since no criminal intent was uncovered in Cherney’s loan to Ze’evi.
There are several lessons to be learned from this affair. First, as I have written before, when there is smoke, there is not always fire. Second, becoming involved with intelligent, persistent and suspicious prosecutors in Israel is dangerous to one’s health. Third, any business person has to do due diligence, not only on the business financial aspects of a deal but on the personalities involved. Fourth, the financial costs of slip ups are enormous. Hence the huge amounts entrepreneurs pay legal firms to minimize possibilities of exposure to possible mistakes. Legal costs and potential legal costs constitute a significant, but largely unproductive cost of engaging in business transactions. Any actions the state can take to ensuring financial deals are totally above board while also minimizing exposure to risk can be one of the most important contributions that the state can make both to the efficiency and integrity of business transactions.