- Steinhoff's former chairperson, Christo Wiese, says the company's move to settle a raft of legal claims against it is a step in the right direction.
- Steinhoff has proposed a total payout of R16.5 billion to settle around 90 separate claims against it, almost three years after its disgraced former CEO Markus Jooste abruptly quit.
- There is a possibility that Steinhoff could be liquidated if it is unable to find the cash to pay all of the claims.
Embattled retailer Steinhoff’s proposal to settle about 90 legal proceedings against it is a step in the right direction, according to the company’s former chairperson Christo Wiese.
Two-and-a-half years after the Stellenbosch-headquartered global retailer's stock plunged precipitously after its CEO abruptly resigned at the start of one of South Africa's largest-ever accounting scandals, the company has put forward its proposal to settle legal claims against it.
And one of the largest claimants is Wiese.
The combined sum of all the claims Steinhoff is facing in SA and Europe that have been quantified is about R136 billion, more than 20 times the company's current market capitalization of around R5 billion.
On Monday Steinhoff proposed a settlement of R16.5 billion, made up of a mix of cash and shares in its subsidiary Pepkor Holdings.
"When I issued my summons against the company in April 2018, I wrote a letter to say that it’s quite clear that the only sensible way of resolving these issues is a settlement in which the creditors and claimants will participate, and it’s now taken two-and-a-half years for other people to come to the same conclusion," Wiese told Fin24 by phone on Monday.
Wiese’s close relationship with Steinhoff began in 2013, when he was appointed as a non-executive director of the group. Two years later, in 2015, the company acquired more than 90% of discount retailer, Pepkor. In May 2016 the business magnate was appointed chairperson of the group's supervisory board.
Wiese's Titan Group was one of the first to lodge a claim against the retailer in April, 2018. The group is suing the retailer for R59 billion.
There are now, according to Steinhoff, about 90 distinct legal proceedings facing the company due the sharp plunge in its share in the wake of Jooste's resignation.
"The whole Steinhoff thing is a tragedy, and as it now appears it’s a fraud that had been committed for more than a decade and it is a very sad story," said Wiese.
According to Steinhoff's proposal, €266m (about R5.1 billion at current exchange rates) would be paid to settle market purchase claims, €104 million (R2 billion) would be paid to settle claims of contractual counterparties against Steinhoff International Holdings N.V., while R9.4 billion would be paid to settle claims against Steinhoff International Holdings Proprietary Limited.
The claims would be paid using in the form of cash and shares from Steinhoff’s subsidiary, Pepkor Holdings, at a deemed price of R15 per share. Steinhoff is working on separate proposals for claimants who also happen to be managers at Pepkor Holdings. Acceptance of the proposals by creditors and regulators would bring to an end a three-year ordeal for shareholders.
The settlement, says Steinhoff, will give claimants a measure of certainty that they will get something out. The alternative is a "protracted, expensive and unpredictable court processes".
Portfolio manager at Gryphon Asset Managemenet, Casparus Treurnicht, said: "If he [Wiese] is happy with the settlement, it will set the precedent for all the claims at Steinhoff.”
However, he said Steinhoff’s creditors might have a problem with the claimants receiving their settlements before they are paid. This means that the matter could appear before court before anyone is paid out.
Treurnicht added that there was a possibility Steinhoff could be liquidated if it is unable to find the cash to pay all of the claims, including Wiese’s.
Billions in claims
The company said not all the claimants have been quantified but the combined claims for those who have are more than R136 billion.
As for Wiese, he said he still has not seen nor heard from Jooste since the news of the accounting irregularities.
As Wiese waits for news about the case, he is doing what doesn’t come naturally: trying to get ready for retirement. He is set to hand over the reins later this year as the chair of Shoprite.
"But I’m not so great on retirement. I am reorganising my life a little bit, everybody gets to that stage in life. But I’ve still got a lot of things to do and I’m being kept busy," said Wiese, adding that he hopes to spend more time with his grandchildren.
Although Steinhoff has been a source of sadness for him, he is proud of what he built.
"I’m not a great one for the concept of legacies, but I’m very happy that I managed, together with other people, to build very large businesses and our group was the largest single private-sector employer in SA. I’m happy and proud that I was part of creating that," he said.
"I lost a business that I built over 50 years through fraud, and that’s not an easy thing, [but] these things do happen," he said.