Steinhoff’s ex-CEO among eight named for questionable deals

Steinhoff International Holdings NV identified eight people, including former Chief Executive Officer Markus Jooste, as those allegedly behind questionable transactions that brought the global retailer to near-collapse.

The company’s executives were compelled by a South African parliamentary committee to release the names even as Chairwoman Heather Sonn and CEO Louis du Preez warned it could jeopardize investigations and break European privacy laws. The revelations come after a forensic probe by PwC uncovered 6.5 billion euros ($7.4 billion) of irregular transactions with eight firms from 2009 and 2017, according to a summarized report released Friday.

“We want the emphasis to be on prosecutions,” Sonn told lawmakers in Cape Town on Tuesday. According to parliament’s laws, any of its committees can force that information be provided, with the promise of immunity as long as no perjury is involved.

‘Precarious Position’

The names are being released as the owner of Conforama in France and Mattress Firm in the U.S. said it remains in a “precarious position.” Steinhoff is seeking to finalize agreements with creditors after revelations of accounting irregularities in December 2017 wiped out almost 95 percent of its value. An elite South African police unit known as the Hawks told lawmakers that one investigation into fraud is at an advanced stage, that the probe has been extended and its team “enhanced” so wrongdoers can be brought to justice.

Former Steinhoff CEO Markus Jooste
Former Steinhoff of retail group CEO Markus Jooste gives testimony about the massive drop of value of the multinational company on September 5, 2018 in the South African Parliament before the Parliamentary committee on finance, public accounts, trade and industry and public administration of Cape Town. Photographer: Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

Others named include Siegmar Schmidt, a former Steinhoff Europe director; Dirk Schreiber, a German national and Steinhoff’s ex-head of finance in Europe; George Alan Evans, a director of Geneva-based Campion Capital SA; Ben la Grange, Steinhoff’s ex-chief financial officer; Stehan Grobler, Steinhoff’s ex-company secretary; and Davide Romano and Jean-Noel Pasquier, who are also listed as being part of Campion Capital.

Jooste’s mobile phone went straight to voicemail when called for comment, and he didn’t immediately respond to a text message. Schmidt’s phone rang without being answered and he didn’t immediately respond to a text message. La Grange didn’t answer his phone or respond to a text message, nor did Schreiber or Grobler.

A person who answered the phone at a company where Evans, Romano and Pasquier are listed as directors said Evans and Romano are out of the office. Emails sent to Romano and Evans weren’t immediately replied to. An automated reply from Pasquier said he is out of the office until March 25 and referred queries to Romano.

Heavy Going

With about 100 auditors at PwC having labored on the report for well over a year, the company said it plans to dig deeper into the accounting misdeeds as it seeks to prepare its 2017 and 2018 audited earnings, due next month.

The Hawks were chastised by Yunus Carrim, the chairman of parliament’s oversight committee on finance, for taking so long to investigate the matter. Lieutenant General Godfrey Lebeya said that the unit is taking it seriously and that having the names of those alleged to be involved will help the probe.

Jooste in September told South African lawmakers that the origin of the company’s woes related to a protracted dispute with a former partner. He also said he wasn’t aware of the financial irregularities reported by the company the day he quit. Instead, he blamed Deloitte LLP for wanting an additional probe into allegations of financial mismanagement in Europe just days before the retailer was due to report 2017 financials.

The company’s stock declined 3.2 percent as of 2:30 p.m. in Frankfurt, paring gains this year to about 15 percent.

— With assistance from Renee Bonorchis