Christo Wiese’s net worth, more than $5bn at the start of the year according to Forbes, has halved since the scandal broke © Bloomberg
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When British customs officers fished hundreds of thousands of pounds in cash from Christo Wiese’s luggage as he was passing through London City airport in 2009, he did not bat an eyelid.
Known for the dealmaking sangfroid that elevated him from humble origins to one of the richest men in South Africa, the retail magnate looked back with remarkable equanimity three years later upon the discovery of £674,920 in used notes — and a subsequent UK court battle with suspicious authorities.
“I was confident that I would win because I had done nothing wrong,” Mr Wiese, 76, told South African media. The money had simply been resting in a Swiss bank’s strongbox and was being flown over to his bankers in Luxembourg, he said.
This week, that sangfroid has been tested. Mr Wiese is the largest shareholder in Steinhoff International, the byzantine, Johannesburg- and Frankfurt-listed retail conglomerate. The company he helped build is now embroiled in an accounting scandal that is possibly the largest in South African corporate history.
Steinhoff’s shares have plummeted 90 per cent following its announcement on Tuesday that it had found “irregularities” in its accounts, prompting the immediate resignation of Markus Jooste, its chief executive. Global banks are looking at substantial losses on loans to a company that has been a serial acquirer in recent years of assets including a US mattress group and the UK high-street discounter, Poundland.
Ever since, Mr Wiese has been locked in meetings with advisers to prevent Steinhoff collapsing like a house of cards. Investors are questioning the debt-fuelled buying spree that positioned the company among the ranks of the world’s biggest retailers. One of Mr Wiese’s investing catchphrases — “I do not get involved in businesses I do not control” — appears to be coming back to haunt him.
Steinhoff seemed to be a bright spot among South African business, with 40 brands in more than 30 countries. Now its image is in tatters, making a mockery of pretensions among the country’s corporations to criticise the culture of impropriety in the African National Congress.
“All these companies were suckered into believing Christo Wiese has the ‘Midas touch’,” says Magda Wierzycka, chief executive of Sygnia, the South African investment manager. “Let’s ignore the noise [about Steinhoff] because it’s Christo Wiese — that was the view.”
Born in Upington in South Africa’s arid Northern Cape, and graduating from Stellenbosch university near Cape Town, Mr Wiese cut his teeth in his family’s retail business, Pep Stores. Over the decades it became Pepkor, sold to Steinhoff for $5.7bn in 2014. Another early bet on Shoprite, a Western Cape grocer, eventually also turned into a stake in an African consumer behemoth — burnishing the legend of his golden touch.
As he built his retail empire, Mr Wiese relied on a network of South African financiers that was first based among Stellenbosch’s bucolic vineyards — both he and Mr Jooste have estates — but soon reached deep inside the City of London.
Brait, Mr Wiese’s private equity vehicle that bought New Look and Virgin Active in the UK in a parallel acquisition spree to Steinhoff, is headed by John Gnodde, whose brother Richard is the chief executive of Goldman Sachs. Goldman was one of the banks that provided a $1.6bn margin loan to allow Mr Wiese to purchase more shares in Steinhoff last year.
Linklaters, the London-based law firm that has advised on many of Steinhoff’s biggest international deals, is led by South African-born Charlie Jacobs.
One person who has worked closely with Mr Wiese has described the primary rationale for Brait’s and Steinhoff’s forays into Europe as a chance to reduce Mr Wiese’s exposure to his home country.
Yet Mr Wiese’s own net worth, more than $5bn at the start of this year according to Forbes, has halved since the scandal broke. As Steinhoff now fights to survive, it may be Mr Wiese’s reputation in South Africa that will need the most repair.