It's no piece of cake to summarize Yoram Turbowicz's three-year stint as top dog at
. His successes were many, but so were his failures.
The last report to which Turbowicz affixed his name was not representative. Discount Investments had to write off a massive NIS 230 million due to the shrinking value of investments, and due to huge losses by held companies.
But before dwelling on the elephantine write-offs, we should note points to Turbowicz's credit. Such as the merger between Discount Investments and PEC, which begged to be done. Also, Discount Investments sold off several traditional holdings for handsome gains: the Kaniel canning company, the Kalil cleansers manufacturer, the Tambour paint company, Mul-T-Lock, and the Tel'ad cable TV company for about $150 million, on top of accrued capital gains totaling tens of millions of dollars.
As Turbowicz says, none of the assets were sold under the gun. Discount Investments made a handsome profit on each transaction.
(Nasdaq:ELRNF), a Discount Investments subsidiary, also had good timing in selling off assets during Turbowicz's time. Here, though, the credit should rightly go to Elron's president Ami Erel, who is replacing Turbowicz as chief of Discount Investments, by the way. Elron also sold off $150 million worth of assets, including control of Peach Networks, sold to Microsoft (Nasdaq:MSFT) and HyNEX, sold to
Altogether, in Turbowicz's three years, even after factoring in a NIS 149 million loss for 2000, Discount Investments earned NIS 263 million. That is equivalent to an 8% or 9% return on equity, only moderate for a holding company.
Turbowicz's black marks
On the flip side, Discount Investments did badly by gambling too heavily on the cable TV company Tevel.
As former Antitrust Commissioner of Israel, Turbowicz was convinced that Tevel's regulatory problems would be resolved quickly. He was wrong.
Tevel is sunk up to its neck in regulatory quicksand. It is throwing unthinkable amounts of money into its competition with the YES satellite TV company and in buying content. All told, it is losing NIS 200 million a year and nobody's betting the house on when it will reach operating balance.
Turbowicz still believes in Tevel. But if he had a chance to sell Discount Investments' holdings in the company, he'd probably have leaped at it. All he can do is envy Aurec, a holdings company that got out of Tevel in time.
Apropos Aurec, Turbowicz was responsible for the fact that Tevel paid Aurec $2,200 per cable TV subscriber for control of another cable TV company, Golden Channels. Altogether, Tevel (together with Eliezer Fishman) paid more than $370 million for the Golden Channels shares, twice the equity's value today.
Discount Investments' Internet adventures ended in catastrophe. That's Turbowicz's fault too. Though to be fair, the company's board probably stood behind the decision to stream tens of millions of shekels into the e-commerce calamity XXL and the doomed NetKing portal.
Board or not, the leader is first in line for kudos and culpability alike. Turbowicz was the man who had to pull the plug on both these endeavors, and on Discount Investments' fling with TeamWorks. As Turbowicz himself puts it, with hindsight, he wouldn't have made these investments. But at the time, he could not see Discount Investments staying outside the action.
The Cellcom dilemma
If it was up to him, the wireless carrier Cellcom would have gone public on Wall Street long ago and Discount Investments would have sold off its interest.
Cellcom's surmised valuations reached astronomic heights of $7 billion. Today the talk is more of $3 billion. The only thing that hasn't changed is that everything was and is no more than talk.
Cellcom's foreign shareholders are not slavering to float the company, leaving Discount Investments stuck with one of the most toothsome holdings in Israel but unable to enjoy it in any material way.
Cellcom generates annual profits of some NIS 450 million a year. But it does not hand out dividends, because it will need every penny it has to upgrade and to invest in GSM. Cellcom is bettering itself, entirely without reward for Discount Investments.
The bottom line
At the bottom line, Discount Investments generated positive returns of 25% on its shareholders equity over the last three years. Or, roughly the same as the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange in that time. Turbowicz did not outperform the market.
But considering the troubles Israel's major concerns have faced in the last couple of years massive writeoffs, shrinking values of hi-tech holdings, an inability to issue companies on Wall Street one could well conclude that Turbowicz did well by the company's investors.