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Your cheat sheet on Steinhoff as its execs head back to Parly

Mar 19 2019 05:00
Jan Cronje

When Steinhoff executives appeared before Parliament in 2018 to testify about the plunge in the group's share price and accounting irregularities, they told MPs there were many questions they could not yet answer. 

As Steinhoff's former chairperson Christo Wiese put it in February 2018, this was because PwC had not yet finalised its forensic probe of the company's finances.

On Friday, some 16 months after its former CEO Markus Jooste abruptly resigned and its share price fell off a cliff, Steinhoff made public an 11-page overview of the 3 000-page PwC report. 

And on Tuesday, the global retailer's leadership is expected to again brief a joint siting of three oversight committees about Steinhoff.  In addition to Steinhoff, the committee will hear from the Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority, the JSE and regulatory bodies about the status of their investigations into the group. 

Here's what you need to know to get up to date with what happened since December 2017 at what was once called the 'Ikea of Africa'.  

What is Steinhoff? 

Steinhoff is global furniture and household goods company that is headquartered in Stellenbosch and domiciled in the Netherlands. From its listing on the JSE in 1998 to the precipitous decline in its share price in December 2017, it was viewed as an African success story. 

Some 40 local brands in over 30 countries fall under its holding company, Steinhoff International Holdings, which trades on the JSE and the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. 

The company set its sights on the global mass middle market, selling household goods, home appliances, furniture, clothes, beds, shoes, hi-fi sets, tiles and the like, mostly form brick and mortar stores. 

Today, the bulk of its revenue comes from Europe, where it owns European home furnishings company Conforama, and discount UK retailer Poundland and its subsidiary Dealz, among numerous other brands. 

Steinhoff is also the parent company of JSE-listed Pepkor, previously known as Steinhoff Retail Africa, which includes many of the assets that were once part of Wiese’s Pepkor Holdings. Pepkor was acquired by Steinhoff for around R60bn in 2015. 

In September 2016, Steinhoff acquired Mattress Firm, America’s biggest mattress retailer, which recently emerged from bankruptcy.

What happened in December 2017?

Markus Jooste, Steinhoff's long-time CEO, abruptly resigned on December 6, 2017, sending the firm's shares into a tailspin. This came after the group's auditors flagged "accounting irregularities" in its books. 

Wiese, Steinhoff's board chair, took over the running of the company, only to quit days later as it became clear the scandal wasn't going away. 

The same day that Steinhoff notified shareholders about the accounting irregularities, it approached PwC to conduct an independent forensic investigation into its books. 

A flurry of investigations by regulators were soon announced, and more added during 2018; some were into Steinhoff itself and others into former executives.

By early 2018, these included investigations by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, the Financial Services Conduct Authority (previously the FSB), the Department of Trade and Industry, and the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission. 

The Hawks are investigating Jooste, while a separate German criminal probe into unnamed Steinhoff execs has been ongoing since 2015.

The group is also the subject of a number of class action lawsuits. Wiese, meanwhile, announced in April 2018 that he would sue Steinhoff for R59bn. 

Meanwhile there is an ongoing court case between Tekkie Town, owned by Steinhoff, and a new competitor, Mr Tekkie, run by some of the former owners of Tekkie Town.

Many of these probes appeared to have waited for the outcomes of the PwC investigation before proceeding.

As the probes piled up in 2018, Steinhoff ran into a serious liquidity crunch and was engaged in a major debt restructuring process. 

According to Steinhoff's CEO Louis du Preez, these issues are still affecting the firm's operations. "The liquidity constraints and loss of confidence resulting from the discovery of the alleged accounting irregularities continued to have an impact on operations," he said in a management board letter in early February 2019, before the PwC report had been received.  

What did Steinhoff execs say the last time they appeared before Parliament?  

Tuesday will not be the first time that Steinhoff executives have appear before Parliament. Wiese and other top executives appeared in early February 2018, while Jooste gave testimony in September.  

Wiese told the committee that problems at Steinhoff came like a "bolt out of the blue" to him in December 2017, saying after news of the accounting scandal broke there was "absolute turmoil".

During his appearance in September, Jooste, meanwhile, washed his hands of wrongdoing at the multinational, saying that he was "satisfied" that audit processes were professional.  

"I did not come here to blame anybody; I personally believe all the colleagues I worked with worked in the best interests of the company. They gave their lives, it was part of the daily DNA of the business," he said. 

The only "mistake" that Jooste acknowledged was a entering into partnership with Austrian businessman Andreas Seifert in 2007. 

What did the probe find?

Steinhoff's 11-page overview of the PwC probe, published on Friday, stated that a "small group" of former executives inflated the profit and asset values of the Steinhoff group for years.

The forensic probe found that an unnamed "senior management executive" instructed a small group of other executives to execute instructions, often with the assistance of a "small number of persons not employed by the Steinhoff Group".

Steinhoff said none of the executives identified in the PwC report are currently employed by the group.

The overview states that the small clique of executives used "fictitious and/or irregular transactions" to inflate the group's profits and assets by about €6.5bn (roughly R105bn) between the 2009 and 2017 financial years.

The overview names three third party companies that PwC found were used in the decade-long quest to inflate Steinhoff's assets and profits: the Campion or Fulcrum Group; the Talgarth Group and the TG Group.

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