Steinhoff likely near to settling R188 billion in legal claims

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Steinhoff International Holdings NV is getting close to reaching a potential deal on 10 billion euros (around R188 billion) of legal claims lodged against the global retailer following an accounting scandal that almost wiped out the company, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.

South African claimants - including former chairman Christo Wiese, whose suit amounts to R59 billion - have been offered a combination of cash and shares in Pepkor Holdings, one of the people said. It isn’t immediately clear how much a settlement could amount to, the people said, asking not to be identified because talks are continuing and a deal may not be reached. Steinhoff owns 68% of Pepkor, Africa’s largest clothing retailer.

"I’m hopeful it will be soon," Wiese said by phone, without being more specific on the timing of a potential settlement or the offer. The 78-year-old has the biggest single claim against Steinhoff after becoming its largest shareholder when he sold Pepkor to the firm in 2015. "I wanted to get around the table and do a settlement as soon as we could, and now it’s dragged on for three years."

The longer talks take, the more legal fees stack up, Steinhoff Chief Financial Officer Theodore de Klerk said in an interview. He declined to comment on when a settlement could be reached or details of an offer.

Lawsuits replaced debt as Steinhoff’s most pressing concern after the retailer struck a deal with creditors to skip principal and interest payments on its borrowings through 2021. Steinhoff’s shares collapsed in late 2017 when the owner of Conforama in France and Pep stores in Europe and Africa became locked in a battle to survive following allegations that the company orchestrated transactions to artificially boost its profits and asset values.

De Klerk said:

"It’s clear we’re not going to pay, in full, 10 billion euros of legal claims in cash. It’s not right and we can’t do that."

Steinhoff is pressing hard and is "making progress" in reaching a settlement with claimants such as Wiese and various class-action lawsuits brought by investors and others who lost out when the shares slumped, he said.

"Part of our challenge is not only agreeing multiple-type issues across jurisdictions with different legal claims, but also trying to time them at the same time," De Klerk said. "We’re in continuous talks with people, but we can’t settle with with just one, so we have to do what we call a ‘global settlement’ or else it’s not going to work."

Armand Kersten, head of European relations at Vereniging van Effectenbezitters, the Dutch firm leading a class-action lawsuit against Steinhoff in the Netherlands, declined to comment.

- With assistance from Ben Scent.

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