Shaking things up at Shekem

New marketing techniques have changed the face of the company that sells anything to our soldiers.

September 4, 2008 17:48
Shaking things up at Shekem

shekem then and now 224 . (photo credit: Courtesy)


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'Once you could always tell who was a soldier, even an off-duty one, because they all smelled of Brut, the only aftershave Shekem stocked," says Zvika Goldenberg, CEO of Shiran, the company which runs what used to be known as Shekem, but today is a burgeoning group of shops and canteens known collectively as the Shikliot. When you mention Shekem to old soldiers, they smile and a dreamy nostalgic look comes into their faces. Shekem was the place you went for snacks, a bottle of pop (who drank alcohol in the good old days?) and for a special treat, a chocolate-covered wafer. Today, the 270 Shikliot sell everything from electrical items to personal toiletries, including a brisk trade in condoms, while the food outlets are franchised to some of the biggest suppliers in the business like McDonald's and Aroma. Shekem has gone through some revolutionary changes in its 60 years to become the huge enterprise it is today. Founded in 1948 by prime minister David Ben-Gurion, the initials stand for sherut kantinot lemeginei ha'am, "catering services for the defenders of the people," quite a mouthful in either language. The first Shekem was established in Camp Yona, in what had been a holiday camp for the British army on the Tel Aviv beachfront. Today the Hilton Hotel stands there. Shekem consisted of three small rooms which served as the shop, the office and the storeroom, and they were furnished with stuff the Brits left behind in their hasty departure. Within a short time nine other branches were established in the Tel Aviv area. In the summer of 1948 Shekem headquarters moved to Beit Romano in Tel Aviv, where it stayed for many years. With no budget for transport, the workers in those days relied on the good offices of their neighbors in Beit Romano, the social services, for the occasional loan of a car. But the situation gradually improved and by September 1948, Shekem was active all over the country including Jerusalem. From its very beginning, Shekem mobile trucks, with their cargo of life's necessities like candies, drinks and cigarettes, were destined for the front line, and in the 1956 Sinai Campaign and in all the subsequent wars that's where they could be found. In the Six Day War private vehicles were enlisted for all sorts of military activity, and some were turned into mobile canteens in the spirit of improvisation that reigned then. For a time in the 1970s, Shekem became a department store which was open to the general public, although members of the military could buy everything at a discount. This enterprise survives today as Shekem Electric, which has no relation to the original concept of Shekem. In 1994 the government decided to privatize Shekem and it was taken over for a time by Gershon Zelkind, the CEO of Elco. It continued to live up to its primary function of caring for soldiers' needs at the lowest price. But in 2002, with Zelkind's decision to leave, the Defense Ministry faced a quandary: Which body was going to continue the basic services that Shekem had always provided to soldiers? Zvika Goldenberg continues the saga. "They looked around for a nonprofit, nonbusiness organization which had the soldiers' interests at heart and came up with the Soldiers Welfare Association, which at the time was chaired by Rami Dotan, and asked it to take over Shekem. A subsidiary company, Shiran, was formed under the auspices of the association and three years ago I was appointed CEO with the mission to turn this into a profitable enterprise, all the profits from which would be plowed back into the soldiers' welfare, whether it be in the shape of better facilities in the army camps or more attractive shops and fast-food places that they could patronize during their army service." Goldenberg felt that Shekem always had a bit of an image problem, and he was determined to change that. "In the early days, telling someone to go to Shekem was the equivalent of saying 'get lost' or something even stronger," he relates. "The personnel who worked there were not considered top drawer. When I took over, I understood you had to relate to the soldier properly, and to contribute to his well-being, we had to take a very professional retail approach. "We realized that we have the best customers in Israel for two major reasons - one, they are all in the 18-21 age group and most had never left home before and never shopped for themselves; and two, they are basically captive customers as they don't have a lot of choice, especially in a closed base. But they are consumers who learn quickly and know what they want, and we have to supply it to them. "Just as the IDF doesn't use Patton tanks anymore, but the Merkava 3, so we had to modernize Shekem and make it a fun place for the soldier to shop," he adds. "We can also sell cheaper than other retailers because our working costs are less. Out of the 270 outlets, only 50 have hired staff and the rest are staffed by soldiers. With no rent and no salaries, we can operate at lower cost." During the Second Lebanon War the new Shiran proved itself by sending food parcels and filling in the gaps in logistics acknowledged by the Defense Ministry. "It is generally accepted that the logistics of the army were not good during that war and soldiers were hungry," says Goldenberg. "We were the first to make parcels of food and toiletries for the combat soldiers. During the war we dispatched 350,000 parcels and the Soldiers Welfare Association distributed them to the front and to all the soldiers. "Today we have mobile canteens equipped with refrigeration, and we were three kilometers inside Lebanon going among the battalions and providing food and drink services to everyone. We make a point of being there wherever we are needed." Zvika Gur, an Armored Corps reservist, can testify to the gratitude felt by the fighting soldiers to Shiran. "Believe me, when you've been fighting in a place like Bint Jbail for 10 hours and you get back to base and the first thing you get is an ice-cold can of Coke, nothing tastes sweeter or more wonderful," he says. "That's what Shiran contributed to the war effort, as well as helping with basic provisions which were lacking." But it's not just in wartime that Shiran has a purpose. Today it even takes the burden off the parcel-sending mothers of yore. No more standing in line at the Post Office to send a shoe box full of candy and cake to your soldier, as you can have a standing order and Shiran will do the job for you. Goldenberg has all kinds of plans to expand the services Shiran will offer the soldiers. "We want to increase the categories of food we serve; we may go into things like postal and passport services and non-prescription drugs. And we want the general public to know what we do," he says. "You send your son or daughter to the army and you have information on what airplanes, what tanks, what rifles the army has at its disposal - but as to where he spends his leisure time you have no idea."

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