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Last Updated: Monday, 24 February 2003, 13:36 GMT
Israel's Iron Lady fights for bank giant

By Emma Clark
BBC News Online business reporter

Galia Maor, president of Bank Leumi
Israel's golden girl of banking has a challenge on her hands. She has to deliver a kiss to wake a sleeping giant.

When Galia Maor became president of Israel's second biggest bank, she brought a modicum of razzle dazzle to an otherwise arcane sector.

Her appointment to the top job at Bank Leumi eight years ago turned heads, particularly after she and her chairman Eitan Raff exploded onto the scene with a firecracker of a deal.

In 1996, they managed to offload substantial insurance assets for a lofty price and negotiate a lucrative tax break.

Before too long she was dubbed the Iron Lady of Israeli banking, and last year ranked by Fortune magazine as the 34th most influential woman in the world.

But all good things they say never last.

The pull of gravity

They can only narrow the gap with Hapoalim if they fire more people
Stephen Levey, UBS Warburg

As Israel's economy tanked in 2001, the high-flying banking sector followed almost every other industry into a downward spiral.

"Banks are a mirror of the economy through the loans they have lent to the business sector," says Ronit Goodman, an analyst at local brokerage, Nessuah Zannex Securities.

Israel's major lenders have since been forced to stump up extra provisions to compensate for bad loans made to cable companies, hotels and construction companies during the 1990s boom.

Amid the turmoil, Leumi, seen as a sleeping giant among Israel's banks, has struggled to assert itself.

It has seen its shares almost halve in the past year, while its net profits have plummeted by 40%.

Graph of Bank Leumi profits

For the woman who could once do no wrong, the ride on fortune's fickle wheel has been disorientating.

"We were very proud, the profits slope was very positive since the new management started," says Ms Maor.

"But during 2001-2, the slope went down. We are still in profit but it is very frustrating, particularly when you are used to the phenomena of increasing profits."

Untarnished?

To some extent, Ms Maor is battling events outside her control - Israel's worst recession for 50 years, a global slowdown and the renewal of conflict with the Palestinians.

But the question on some lips is whether her reign at Bank Leumi is losing its lustre.

Ms Maor has long set her sights on making Leumi the most profitable bank in Israel, by tipping its nearest rival Bank Hapoalim from the top spot.

"I would love to see it as number one," she says.

"The goal is well-set and well-understood by everyone in the bank."

GALIA MAOR
Galia Maor, president of Bank Leumi
1963-89: Bank of Israel
1989-91: Private consultant
1991: Joins Bank Leumi as deputy general manager
1995: Appointed president and chief executive

Together Hapoalim and Leumi control more than 60% of the market, but comparisons between the two usually favour the more dynamic Hapoalim.

As a privately owned company, Hapoalim has greater freedom to slash its staff, and therefore its costs.

Leumi, meanwhile, is 35% owned by the government, and has to tough it out with a dominant union.

Ms Maor makes much of a voluntary redundancy programme, and pre-emptive measures to redeploy personnel, but the analysts are not convinced.

"They can only narrow the gap with Hapoalim if they fire more people," says Stephen Levey, head of UBS Warburg in Tel Aviv.

"Hapoalim's cost-to-income ratio is 5% below Leumi's," he adds.

"Hapoalim also has a higher return on equity."

Bargain basement

The Israeli government plans to sell down its stake in Leumi, but turbulent conditions have prolonged the privatisation process.

Compared with its book value, Leumi shares are cheap at about five shekels ($1) a piece. But they are bargains nobody wants.

BANK LEUMI: A ZIONIST BANK
Founded as Anglo-Palestine Co in London in Feb 1902
Opens first branch in Jaffa in August 1903
Becomes government's financial agent with the founding of Israel in 1948
Changes its name to Bank Leumi in 1950
Resumes banking activity in 1954 with founding of the Bank of Israel

"There is hesitation about investing in Israel until the sky clears up," says Ms Maor.

"With the geopolitical situation as it is, we don't think the price can attract anyone."

For the present Leumi hopes to invest its way out of the crisis by expanding abroad and beefing up its technology.

"It means less profits in the short-run but we believe we will be ready for the future," says Ms Maor.

Asked if she wishes the bank had been a more conservative lender in the boom time, she shakes her head.

"I think a lot about this - if it was a pure point of increasing profits this year, yes we should have been more conservative.

"But you shouldn't run a bank thinking about the stress scenario all the time - it will harm it in the long term."

Uncharted water

Ms Maor feels her responsibility keenly and admits that she has less time now to unwind with her family.

Tellingly, she also appears more ambivalent than she once was about achieving the coveted top slot before retiring.

"If Bank Leumi is not number one when I leave, they'll be in a position to do it later on."

Ms Maor's more immediate goals will be to revitalise Leumi and restore the shine to her reputation.

"We know how to navigate the ship in stormy waters," she says of the bleak economic prospects facing Israel.

But if she wants to defy her gathering critics, she will need more than metaphors to get Leumi back on course.




SEE ALSO:
Uprising deepens Israeli recession
18 Feb 03 |  Business
Israel's fall from economic grace
18 Feb 03 |  Business
Israeli tourism hits 20-year low
27 Jan 03 |  Business
Recession dogs top Israeli banks
29 Aug 02 |  Business


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