Steinhoff – plus 120,000 employees – under threat as challenges mount

JOHANNESBURG — There’s a sad saying that all good things must come to an end, something which rings true when furniture retailer Steinhoff is mentioned. Since the Markus Jooste-inspired accounting scandal gripped investors, the group has been burning cash. In an attempt to keep the lights on, senior management reorganised debt and sold off assets but it may not be enough. Steinhoff said the mounting legal issues and increased debt load are starting to weigh on the group, which reported a restated €4bn loss in 2017, from an initial loss of €270m. The group says its ability to operate as a going concern is under threat, which puts the 120,000 employees in the same seat. – Stuart Lowman

Steinhoff raises questions on future as legal claims mount

By John Bowker and Janice Kew

(Bloomberg) – Steinhoff International Holdings NV said its ability to operate as a going concern is under threat from a range of challenges including mounting legal claims and a debt load that the company is working to restructure.

The crisis-hit South African retailer can continue to exist for at least 12 months “based on certain critical assumptions,” Steinhoff said in its 2017 annual report released late Tuesday. Among those is that former investors and other related parties are initially unsuccessful in their efforts to claw back losses following the eruption of the company’s accounting scandal in late 2017.

There is “significant doubt upon the company and group’s ability to continue as a going concern beyond the foreseeable future,” Steinhoff said. “The management board and operational management require sufficient time to stabilise the group and re-establish value at operational level.”

The comments show the extent of the task facing Steinhoff’s new management, which has been battling to keep the owner of Mattress Firm in the US afloat since the discovery of a hole in the accounts 17 months ago. The value of assets had declined to €17.5bn ($19.6bn) by September 2017 from a year earlier, the report showed, little more than half what Steinhoff had reported a year earlier.

Read also: Steinhoff’s corporate crooks: South Africa chants ‘Send them to jail!’

At risk is a company with 120,000 employees across chains including Conforama in France, Poundland in the UK and European clothing retailer Pepco.

Following the company’s 96% share-price collapse, the list of those seeking compensation for losses incurred is led by former Chairman Christo Wiese, who is demanding about €3.8bn. Other claimants include founders of South African shoe retailer Tekkie Town, which Steinhoff bought in an all-stock deal in 2016, and GT Ferreira, co-founder of lender FirstRand Ltd.

Another uncertainty weighing on the company is an ongoing effort to reorganise debt, which Steinhoff said is critical to the group’s liquidity.

If it succeeds, the retailer “should get to a level of debt that can be sustained by the remaining operations,” said Charles Allen, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.

Further risks lie in the need to negotiate with various authorities about the tax implications of the accounting wrongdoing. Steinhoff is also the subject of regulatory probes in South Africa and Germany, where the retailer moved its primary stock-market listing in late 2015. Any resulting fines over the next 12 months will also threaten the viability of the group, according to the annual report.

The shares fell 11% to 0.11 euros in Frankfurt on Wednesday, the most in almost four months. The South African equity markets were closed for national elections.

“Sadly, in my opinion, there is no value left,” Johannesburg-based Anchor Capital’s Peter Armitage said in a note.

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