South African Retail Tycoon Loses Billionaire Status Amid Accounting Crisis
Christo Wiese. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg
South African retail tycoon Christo Wiese dropped from the billionaire ranks earlier on Thursday after the stock of Steinhoff International Holdings, the retail conglomerate where Wiese serves as the chairman, fell 80% in the course of two days. The company’s shares plunged after its CEO, Markus Jooste, resigned due to accounting irregularities, causing Wiese, who debuted on Forbes’ Billionaires list in 2011, to lose more than $3 billion of his net worth. He now sits on a fortune estimated at $742 million, according to Forbes Real Time Rankings.
Wiese made a fortune with his portfolio of publicly traded companies, most of which target rural and low-income areas with reasonable prices for furniture and home goods. “The business has basically been built on one slogan: Low prices you can trust. Just very, very low everyday prices,” the magnate told Forbes in a 2016 profile. Wiese said about Steinhoff: “I suppose we could be described as the Wal-Mart of Africa.”
The 76-year-old retailer also has an 18% stake in the largest retailer in Africa, Shoprite Holdings, which operates supermarkets, furniture stores and fast food outlets in 15 countries across Africa and the Indian Ocean islands. Wiese also owns an estimated 23% of the retail conglomerate, Steinhoff, which had moved its listing in December 2015 from the Johannesburg Stock Exchange to the Frankfurt Stock Exchange to focus on the European market. Steinhoff made up about 90% of Wiese’s net worth until its shares fell by more than 60% on Wednesday, followed by Thursday when the stock took a hit by 46%, erasing $743 million from the South African’s fortune. Wiese had borrowed heavily to purchase shares of Steinhoff; Forbes estimates that he holds about $2.4 billion in debt.
Since he joined the billionaires ranks in 2011 with a net worth of $1.6 billion, Wiese’s fortune fluctuated significantly. Forbes pegged the retail businessman’s fortune at $6.3 billion in March 2015, and two years later, at $5.9 billion, when he was the sixth-richest person in Africa.
Steinhoff released a statement this week, announcing that it has asked accounting firm PwC to investigate the accounting irregularities. As the company deals with the tumult, Wiese will temporarily be the executive chairman, the statement said. Wiese could not be reached for comment.