Bezeq privatization a fait accompli

The gov't handed over control of Bezeq to the Apax-Saban-Arkin consortium after receiving a check for NIS 4.24 bill.

The government handed over control of Bezeq to the Apax-Saban-Arkin consortium Tuesday, after receiving a check for NIS 4.24 billion, thereby completing the country’s largest ever privatization. At its first board meeting as a private company following the payment, the new owners appointed Mori Arkin as its new chairman of the board and current Pelephone CEO Jacob Gelbart as the new chief executive of Bezeq. Gelbart’s deputy at Pelephone, Gil Sharon, stepped up to the position of CEO of the Bezeq mobile phone unit. An official ceremony marking completion of the transaction was expected to take place in November. The move was a key element in the government’s program to open the telecommunications sector in Israel to competition. With the deal complete, the new owners, a partnership between billionaire media-mogul Haim Saban, London-based Apax Partners and Israeli entrepreneur Mori Arkin, gain a 30 percent share in Bezeq. Apax Partners Israel head Allan Barkat believes Bezeq will need to be more competitive moving forward and that many changes will be made at the company to ensure this. “The telecom industry in Israel has had some dramatic changes in the past year and is already competitive,” Barkat said in an interview. “We will work to bring new services to customers and have a long-term vision to grow the company in the new market environment.” In addition to the Bezeq privatization, the industry has also seen Nochi Dankner’s Discount Investments Corp., increase his stake in the country’s largest cellular operator Cellcom to 95%, spending some NIS 1.3b. in the process. Dankner, who initially had his eyes set on Bezeq, has said he intends to build Cellcom into the main competitor to Bezeq. The new owners also will be monitoring the merger of the country’s cable companies into one unit being Hot, which now also offers fixed land telephony service, as well as the developments of VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technology, which has allowed the country’s five Internet providers and four cellular companies to gain experimental licenses for fixed-line services. With its subsidiaries Pelephone, Bezeq International, and Yes offering cellular, international calling, Internet, and multi-channel satellite TV services, respectively, Bezeq is considered a complete telecommunications company. Apax Partners dismissed reports that they plan to sell off shares in some of these units. Government Companies Authority head Eli Gabai said in a statement following Tuesday’s signing that he is confident the privatization will allow the company to flourish and bring an improvement to the bundle and quality of services it can offer to the public. The Finance Ministry said the sale brings an end to a process started in 1989 to reduce the government’s control in Bezeq. The ministry is now left with 16.38% of Bezeq of which Apax-Saban-Arkin have an option to purchase 10.66%. Another 4.71% is available for workers to buy. The government plans to keep the remaining 1.01%. The public owns 35.87% of Bezeq, which trades on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. The shares rose 2% to close at NIS 6.40 on Tuesday. The stock has risen 28% since hitting a low of NIS 5.01 on June 26, when the sale was put in doubt due to Bezeq’s involvement in the Trojan horse industrial spying scandal that implied the company’s Pelephone subsidiary stole information from its competitors. Apax-Saban-Arkin demanded from the government indemnification from any financial obligations that may result from the case. The group won the tender for Bezeq on May 9, outbidding Packard Bell co-founder Benny Alagem's Whitepoint Communications. Through the process eight groups had announced their intentions to buy the company. The transaction was financed by senior debt from co-arrangers Bank Leumi and Bank Hapoalim as well as by a mezzanine syndicate consisting of Harel Insurance, Menora Insurance, Mivtachim Pension, DS Provident, Excellence Provident and Phoenix Insurance.