An Enron-like accounting scandal at South Africa-based furniture group Steinhoff International wiped out billions of retail tycoon Wiese’s fortune. After a four-year battle, he’s back as one of Africa’s richest, and at peace with the world.
Christoffel “Christo” Wiese exudes an air of calm that betrays no hint of the chaos that turned his world turned upside down for more than four years.
In December 2017, the then-76-year-old South African billionaire was informed about serious accounting fraud at retailer Steinhoff International, where he was both chairman and the largest shareholder. Those irregularities turned out to total $7.4 billion in falsified transactions over a span of nine years from 2009 to 2017, a PwC investigation found–making the Steinhoff affair the South African equivalent of the 2001 Enron debacle.
Steinhoff International had acquired Wiese’s discount clothing retailer, Pepkor, in 2015 for $5.7 billion in stock and cash; and he became its chairman a year later in May 2016. Wiese stepped down as chairman in mid-December 2017, soon after the accounting fraud was made public. While it was eventually proven that Weise had no role in the fraud, the 90% drop in the share price of Steinhoff–by far Wiese’s most valuable asset–pummelled his fortune, from an estimated $5.6 billion in March 2017 to $1.1 billion on the 2018 Forbes list of Africa’s billionaires and then off the ranks altogether by the time Forbes’ World Billionaires list came out a few months later that year.
Now, following a multi-year legal battle that ended in a $500 million settlement consisting of cash and stock, Wiese is back on Forbes’ newly released 2023 list of Africa’s billionaires, tied at No. 18 with an estimated net worth of $1.1 billion.
Asked about his ordeal last week, Wiese described his initial reaction–and what he’s grateful for. “It came as a huge shock to discover that this [Steinhoff] fraud was in the core of the business,” Wiese recalled in a Teams video call from his office in Cape Town, South Africa. The other shock? “That the people who were committing the fraud managed to get through all the gatekeepers,” he added, ticking them off: internal auditors, external auditor Deloitte, the South African Reserve Bank, international banks that were lending Steinhoff billions of rand, the South African and Frankfurt, Germany stock exchanges (where the company’s shares trade) and the ratings agencies.
What did Wiese know? Nothing, he insists. “People said, ‘But Christo, you were the chairman.’ And I said I chaired four board meetings in the entire time,” Wiese explained. “I am supposed to know what all the other gatekeepers missed?”
Despite his comments, Wiese–and the investment community–had been alerted to concerns about Steinhoff as early as a decade before the furniture seller admitted its problems. In 2007, Sean Holmes, a South Africa-based analyst for JP Morgan, published a critical 56-page report that questioned Steinhoff’s earnings and pointed to poor financial disclosure and a lack of transparency, according to the 2018 book Steinheist: Markus Jooste, Steinhoff & SA’s Biggest Corporate Fraud. The book also recounts a 2009 meeting Wiese had with an analyst at a different firm who shared 40 slides that delved into concerns such as Steinhoff’s inflated assets and its “suspiciously low tax rate.” (That was years before he sold his company to Steinhoff). Then in 2015, right before Steinhoff shifted its primary stock listing to Frankfurt, a German tax authority raised concerns about the company’s accounting. Wiese said a forensic accounting firm the board hired shortly afterward failed to find any issues.
In fact, Wiese had demonstrated supreme confidence in Steinhoff as a business (or took a huge risk, depending on your perspective). In September 2016, he borrowed $1.8 billion from banks to finance the purchase of more shares in Steinhoff, lifting his ownership stake from nearly 20% to 25%. To guarantee the loans, Wiese pledged the vast majority of his Steinhoff shares as collateral. When Steinhoff stock tanked at the end of 2017, the banks took control of his shares. The loan transaction was ring fenced around the Steinhoff shares, so that in case of default, the banks could not go after Wiese’s other assets, a spokesperson for Wiese said.
Markus Jooste, a South African and the former CEO of Steinhoff International–who ran the company during the years of the accounting fraud, will be tried in Germany in April, South African media reported on Friday. In the spring of 2021, German prosecutors were reported to have charged Jooste and three colleagues with balance sheet fraud. Jooste, who has denied the allegations in the past, could not be reached for comment.
Altogether, Wiese claimed he was defrauded out of $5 billion (59 billion Rand) and sued Steinhoff for that amount in 2018. It took until late January 2022 for Steinhoff to get South African and Dutch courts (Steinhoff is headquartered in Amsterdam) to sign off on its settlement for shareholders–Wiese and thousands of others–and creditors. Wiese’s roughly $500 million (8 billion Rand) settlement came in the form of cash plus a 5% stake in listed retailer Pepkor Holdings (which is now 51% owned by Steinhoff International). Wiese says he accepted far less than he initially sought, partly to put a halt to the negotiations, which kept dragging on. Steinhoff funded the settlement with Pepkor shares and cash raised from selling off assets–though it still owns 50% of U.S. company MattressFirm and a few other holdings.
Wiese was never in danger of losing his fortune entirely. Besides his Steinhoff stake, he owns more than 10% of listed supermarket chain Shoprite Holdings, Africa’s largest retailer–a kind of South African Walmart, with a hard focus on low prices. It had $10.7 billion revenues in the most recent fiscal year, 145,000 employees and nearly 3,000 stores across southern Africa. In the wake of the Steinhoff accounting nightmare, Wiese sold off hundreds of millions of dollars worth of his Shoprite shares, lowering his stake from 18% in 2017.
Other Wiese holdings include industrial investing firm Invicta Holdings, listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, which has investments in China, Singapore, the U.K. and a small business in the U.S. Via another firm, Tradehold Ltd., he owns industrial businesses in South Africa and commercial property in the U.K. And through Luxembourg-listed firm Brait PLC, Wiese owns stakes in Virgin Active health clubs and two South African firms: a fashion label and a consumer goods business.
“Christo has been a massive risk taker his whole life,” Syd Vianello, a retail analyst in Johannesburg, told Forbes for a March 2016 profile of Wiese. “Africa is not a place for sissies.” Wiese, who calls himself an incurable optimist, agrees. “I’ve been in business for 55 years,” he says. “I just accept that the world is always difficult.”
Wiese’s journey to become Africa’s biggest retail tycoon took a meandering path. After attending Stellenbosch University, he started working for his cousin’s husband’s discount firm PEP in 1970. Four years later he decided he wasn’t good at working for someone else, and wanted a job that required less hours so he could start a family. Following a detour that included buying, running and then selling a diamond mine, Wiese went back to his cousin, who’d grown PEP and added Shoprite, a grocery chain, and offered to buy him out. The cousin accepted.
He focused on maintaining low prices and serving poor customers of all races–at a time of apartheid. In 1986, Wiese spun off Shoprite and PEP (now called Pepkor) into separate public companies, maintaining control of both. By 2014, Wiese says he controlled the two largest retail businesses in South Africa, and there was really no way to grow more domestically due to antitrust concerns.
That is when he turned to Steinhoff, which did business in Europe and South Africa. “I came to the conclusion that here was a business with a very strong balance sheet, strong cash flows, experienced management and international operations,” he recalled. It didn’t turn out that way.
Now 81, Wiese said he has no plans to retire. “I nearly died in 2021 with Covid, so I’ve come to realize that I’m not necessarily destined to live forever. But my problem is I don’t play golf or do stuff like that. For me, my business is my pleasure.”
Plus he certainly has no desire for Steinhoff to be his final chapter.
“I was not going to let this almost unbelievable disaster spoil my life,” Weise reflected on the Steinhoff matter. “I have a lot to be grateful for. I love my country, I’ve got a wonderful family, wonderful friends. I just decided to carry on with my life.”