Elliott urges Israel's Bezeq to appoint new CEO, buy back shares

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Activist investor Elliott Advisors on Thursday urged the board of Bezeq Israel Telecom BEZQ.TA to appoint a new chief executive and consider implementing a share buy-back program.

Elliott, which this year disclosed a 4.8 percent stake in Bezeq, has been pushing for change at Israel’s largest telecoms group in the wake of a securities investigation into the company’s management and owners.

The campaign came to a head last month with Bezeq shareholders voting for a new board that removed the controlling shareholder’s majority and paved the way for a corporate overhaul.

In Thursday’s letter to new chairman Shlomo Rodav, Elliott said that with the long overdue changes in governance achieved, it recommended acting quickly to appoint a new CEO, develop a coherent new business strategy and seek authorization to buy back shares and consider implementing a buy-back program when appropriate.

“Shares could be acquired from the market or, if feasible, from the (controlling shareholder) Eurocom Group,” Elliott said in its letter.

Elliott said Bezeq should seek authorization to acquire up to 10 percent of its shares, which it said were trading below analysts’ expectations.

It said it would be positive in financial terms for Bezeq to buy back its own shares and could be funded by a 500 million shekel ($140 million) real estate sale and modest loans.

Bezeq CEO Stella Handler was arrested in February in connection with a wider investigation into alleged fraud, bribery and securities offences. She has denied any wrongdoing and plans to step down in July.

Controlling shareholder and former chairman Shaul Elovitch, a family friend of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was also arrested along with a number of other officials connected with Bezeq. They all deny any wrongdoing.

Elovitch controls Bezeq through Eurocom.

“We continue to believe that Bezeq is fundamentally a well-positioned and resilient business, where — following a sustained period of poor governance and management — a new leadership team can drive performance improvements and rebuild shareholder value,” Elliott said.

Shares in Bezeq were up 0.1 percent in afternoon trade. They are down 20 percent this year and fell by 29 percent in 2017.

Reporting by Steven Scheer. Editing by Jane Merriman