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Steinhoff extends billion-euro olive branch to litigants  

By Xolisa Phillip, in Johannesburg
Posted on Thursday, 30 July 2020 15:00

FILE PHOTO: Steinhoff Chief Executive Officer Louis du Preez addresses a presentation to investors in Cape Town
Steinhoff Chief Executive Officer Louis du Preez addresses a presentation to investors in Cape Town, South Africa, August 13, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Disgraced retail group Steinhoff plans to settle R136bn (about €7bn) in litigation claims instituted against the company in South Africa, Germany and the Netherlands.

The retail conglomerate will also dispose of the Conforama businesses in France in a bid to restructure and compensate shareholders who incurred massive losses in 2017.

“The company’s development of a settlement proposal has progressed … to a point where the group is … announcing the terms of a proposed settlement to resolve substantially all of the relevant claims and proceedings,” according to Louis du Preez, the CEO and a member of the management board.

But the mooted plan requires the approval of regulators and the company’s creditors. The proposed settlement plan is being stitched together under the brands: Steinhoff International Holdings NV (SIHNV), the current holding company, and Steinhoff International Holdings Proprietary Limited (SIHPL), the former South African holding company.

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The claims stem from December 2017, when Steinhoff was plunged into crisis following the discovery of accounting irregularities in its books. That scandal resulted in the Steinhoff share price losing significant value and the company emerged a shadow of the dominant market force it once was.

More than 90 separate legal proceedings have been initiated against the company, as well as against its former directors, including disgraced former CEO Markus Jooste, and officers of group entities.

Steinhoff's former Chief Executive Markus Jooste appears in parliament to face a panel investigating an accounting scandal that rocked the retailer in Cape Town
Steinhoff’s former Chief Executive Markus Jooste appears in parliament to face a panel investigating an accounting scandal that rocked the retailer in Cape Town, South Africa, September 5, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Value of a deal

The claims are not only complex in nature because they have been lodged in multiple jurisdictions, but also pose a risk to the company’s net asset value.

The proposed settlement will ease some of this pressure. Should the settlement process be a success, it will:

  • Provide claimants with a certain outcome;
  • Most importantly, “it will largely resolve the material contingent liabilities faced by SIHNV and SIHPL as a result of the ongoing litigation”;
  • “Help the ongoing work to stabilise and support the continued operations of the group aimed at preserving business value for its stakeholders and employees,” according to the company.

“Settlement of the outstanding litigation was identified as being the second step in our plan,” explained Du Preez. “Compensating shareholders who suffered losses in December 2017 has been one of our key objectives together with protecting the livelihoods of our employees and recovering value for creditors.”

Creditors’ say so

However, a settlement would have to factor Steinhoff’s financial position and its substantial levels of debt. Then there are also the disruptions caused by COVID-19 to consider. In the group’s case, the pandemic has affected its businesses and currency volatility has had adverse implications for the company’s valuations.

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“Although there is no certainty yet that we will be able to conclude this settlement, in our view these terms are firmly in the best interests of all stakeholders. We urge all claimants to engage positively with us and support our proposal to resolve the outstanding legacy claims,” appealed Du Preez.

Steinhoff has placed on the table proposed settlement amounts for various claimant groups based on risk, nature of claims, the group’s ability to continue trading and to maximise the asset values available to it.

In September 2019, a global settlement was contemplated when the group’s financings, estimated at €9.24bn and remain subject to interest, were restructured. Steinhoff’s creditors agreed to an extension, giving the retailer much needed breathing room.

“The proposed … settlement will require fresh consent from financial creditors. The financial creditors are being asked to make additional concessions including the extension to the maturity of their loans to the group,” said Du Preez.

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