Steinhoff rejects allegations of dishonest accounting amid German probe

By Alexander Kell, Janice Kew and Karin Matussek

(Bloomberg) — Steinhoff International Holdings rejected allegations of dishonesty made in a Manager-Magazin report that Chief Executive Officer Markus Jooste is among employees being investigated by German prosecutors in a 2015 case linked to possible accounting fraud.

A Steinhoff International Holdings NV logo sits on display outside the company’s offices in Stellenbosch on August 17, 2016. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

Substantial information in the article is “wrong or misleading,” the South African furniture and clothing retailer said in a statement Thursday. Referring to the start of the 2015 probe, Steinhoff said it appointed legal and external audit firms in Germany to investigate the matter and they concluded that “no evidence exists” that the company broke the country’s commercial laws, it said.

The stock rose 1.9 percent to 3.87 euros at 9:45 a.m. in Frankfurt after plunging as much as 17 percent on Thursday.

The report in Manager-Magazin relates to a case that began just before Steinhoff moved its primary listing to Frankfurt from Johannesburg in December 2015. In November of that year, German authorities searched Steinhoff offices in the town of Westerstede and visited private homes as part of an investigation by prosecutors in the town of Oldenburg into four current and former managers.

Steinhoff said at the time it was “fully committed” to support the probe and Thursday reiterated it has “engaged constructively” with the authorities. “No further investigations have been initiated nor any searches conducted as alleged in the article,” the company said.

The company is involved in ongoing civil litigation — including with a former joint-venture partner — and the outcome “should result in monetary remedy to be paid by the group,” Steinhoff said. However, “the payment of any such monetary remedy would not have a material adverse effect on the trading and/or financial condition.”

Prosecutors suspect inflated revenue was reported on the balance sheets of units owned by the discount retailer, according to Manager-Magazin, which attributed the information to unidentified people at the prosecutor’s office. The sums involved are in the three-digit-million euro range, the magazine said.

Aggressive Expansion

Steinhoff has expanded aggressively over the past three years and has completed acquisitions in South Africa, the U.K. and the U.S. The company’s brands include low-cost sub-Saharan Africa chain Pep, Conforama in France and The Mattress Firm in the U.S. The company will announce third-quarter earnings on Aug. 31.

Steinhoff’s African unit is poised to take a 22.7 percent stake in Shoprite Holdings Ltd., Africa’s largest grocer, which will allow South African billionaire Christo Wiese to combine his retail assets on the continent after a proposed merger of the two companies fell through earlier this year.