For years, Israel Cohen vowed to hold on as head of Giant Food Inc. until at least the age of 90, like his father, but a malignant bone marrow disorder has forced the 82-year-old chairman and chief executive officer to step aside until he recovers.
Mr. Cohen, known throughout the supermarket industry as "Izzy," has been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome and will be treated with radiation as an outpatient, the Landover-based company announced yesterday.
Despite his sudden absence, analysts expect little to change -- for the moment -- at the dominant supermarket chain in the region with 161 stores in Maryland, Virginia and Washington.
"Izzy was fairly active in the business, but day-to-day, he wasn't actively managing" the company for a couple of years, said Kurt C. Funderburg of Ferris, Baker Watts Inc. But the presence of the silver-maned CEO was still felt in strategic planning and, even more, in the family business that he embodied.
"Izzy has really been the major driving force of Giant's growth for the last 30 years or so," Mr. Funderburg said.
Myelodysplastic syndrome, a failure of the bone marrow to produce cells normally, is a grave illness, according to Dr. William Bell, professor of medicine and hematology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who has treated patients with the disorder. "Usually, once this is present, the number of people alive after five years is few," he said.
The disorder is not painful, nor does it affect mental faculties, Dr. Bell said, but it causes weakness, high fever, loss of appetite, general malaise and a susceptibility to infection and bleeding.
Details of Mr. Cohen's condition were not available yesterday. Nor did the company address its plans in his absence.
In Mr. Cohen's absence, one thing is a certainty: The company will be led by Pete L. Manos, whom Mr. Cohen named president in September 1992 -- following pressure from jittery Wall Street analysts who were concerned that Mr. Cohen was not making plans for a successor.
"Pete Manos is there because Izzy Cohen picked him to be there -- I wouldn't see a big change in philosophy any time soon," Mr. Funderburg said. "While Izzy will not be in the office, certainly Pete Manos will consult with him on matters of substance."
Analysts, however, expect Mr. Cohen's departure to fuel speculation that London-based J. Sainsbury PLC, a minority stakeholder in Giant, may try to acquire a controlling interest. Sainsbury officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The No. 1 grocer in Britain bought a 16 percent ownership stake in Giant for $325 million in October 1994. Although Giant trades publicly, Sainsbury controls three of the seven seats on the board of directors and Mr. Cohen elects the other four.
Mr. Cohen, the father of Dana and Peter Cohen, neither of whom work for the company, is the son of Giant's co-founder, Nehemiah Cohen.
The elder Cohen, who owned three groceries in Lancaster, Pa., and his partner, Jacob Lehrman, opened their first store in 1936 in Washington. Nehemiah Cohen retired in 1979 at the age of 90.
After the announcement of Israel Cohen's illness, Giant Class A shares closed yesterday at $28.50, down 12.5 cents.