Steinhoff suspends ex-CFO Ben La Grange amid accounts probe

Ben la Grange, the former CFO of Steinhoff (Supplied)
Ben la Grange, the former CFO of Steinhoff (Supplied)

Steinhoff International Holdings has suspended former Chief Financial Officer Ben La Grange and ex-director Stehan Grobler in the first action taken against executives by the company as part of an ongoing investigation into the retailer’s finances following an accounting scandal.

While both La Grange and Grobler stepped down from their roles earlier this year, they remained on short-term consultancy deals, Steinhoff said in an emailed response to questions Tuesday. Those contracts have been suspended as part of a investigation by PwC into financial irregularities that triggered a share-price collapse late last year.

Their departures extend culpability beyond ex-Chief Executive Officer Markus Jooste, who quit when the scandal erupted and is being investigated by police. La Grange, 43, worked as CFO under Jooste for almost five years. Grobler’s positions included company secretary and an executive director of treasury and financing.

La Grange’s lawyer, Chris Hessian, didn’t immediately respond to emailed questions or return a call made to his office. Grobler said by phone he was bound by confidentiality agreements and declined to comment further.

Asset write-off

Steinhoff’s crisis was triggered when Deloitte refused to sign off on financial results for the year ending September 30, 2017. It has since said its accounts will have to be restated back at least as far as 2015, and PwC is focusing its report on a string of third-party transactions and inflated profit values.

The retailer has written off the value of assets by more than $14.5bn, and has made it a priority to identify those responsible.

At the annual general meeting in April, Chairwoman Heather Sonn said that any current executive found to have been connected to the financial wrongdoing would immediately be removed.

Under Jooste and and La Grange, Steinhoff pursued a breakneck international expansion that included the $5.7bn acquisition of pan-African retailer Pepkor Holdings, and further purchases of Mattress Firm and Poundland in the UK. While all those businesses remain in operation, Steinhoff faces an uphill battle to keep the company afloat even after after agreeing to a debt restructuring with creditors last month.

The shares rose 2.3% in Frankfurt, where Steinhoff moved its primary listing from Johannesburg in 2015. The stock has lost 96% of its value since the scandal erupted on December 5.

La Grange may be legally ordered to appear before a parliamentary committee next week after declining to attend because his lawyer is unavailable, parliament’s finance committee said earlier Tuesday. La Grange had been willing to appear this week, his lawyer told the committee, only for the hearing to be postponded because Steinhoff representatives are at a court hearing in the Netherlands.

* This article was updated at 17:33

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