Steinhoff gauges interest in European retailer Pepco

A company sign stands inside the Steinhoff International Holdings NV company headquarters in Stellenbosch, South Africa, on Monday, May 14, 2018. (Bloomberg pic)

JOHANNESBURG: Steinhoff International Holdings NV is gauging takeover interest in businesses including clothing chain Pepco as the scandal-hit retailer prepares for the next phase of a recovery plan, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The South African company has informally sounded out potential buyers for Pepco including private equity firms, said the people, who asked not to be identified as the plans aren’t public. The profitable chain, with more than 1,300 stores in Eastern European countries such as Poland and Romania, has emerged as one of the jewels in Steinhoff’s crown as the retailer battles to survive an accounting scandal.

A formal auction of Pepco could come if or when Steinhoff agrees to a 9.4 billion-euro (US$11 billion) debt-restructuring deal with bondholders and other lenders, seen by the company as a crucial step toward avoiding insolvency. The retailer is negotiating a two-year payment delay, people familiar with the matter said last week, and the company said Friday it has enough backing to extend the talks through July 20.

Steinhoff declined to comment.

Steinhoff shares have lost more than 95% of their value since the company reported accounting irregularities in December. While the retailer is only mid-way through a year-long investigation into its finances, the stock bounced this week following the release of unaudited half-year earnings and a partial restatement of discredited figures late Friday. The shares gained 38% Tuesday, and rose a further 3% to 0.12 euros as of 9.08 am in Frankfurt Wednesday.

While private-equity firms await a formal sale process, Steinhoff Africa Retail Ltd., which was spun off by Steinhoff before the scandal erupted, has made an expression of interest for both Pepco and UK discounter Poundland, the people said. The approach was rejected, though STAR, as the retailer is known, remains interested. Steinhoff owns about 71% of STAR, whose finances have been broadly untainted by the scandal.

A spokeswoman for STAR didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“The future shape of the group should start to become clearer, although there is likely to be tension because the most saleable parts of the group are those that would be most attractive as part of a future Steinhoff,” Charles Allen, a retail analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, said in a note.

Expansion Drive
Pepco’s revenue jumped 40% in the half-year through March, according to the unaudited financials published last week. The company is also on an expansion drive and is targeting 1,500 outlets by the end of September.

Poundland, which has 871 outlets selling a range of household items for £1 a piece, bucked a tough UK trading environment to post half-year like-for-like sales growth of 2.4%.

Steinhoff bought Pepkor Holdings Ltd., which included what was to become Pepco, and Poundland as part of an acquisition spree starting 2015. Pepco and Poundland are now grouped together by Steinhoff as Pepkor Europe, which reported earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization growth of 28% in the six months through March.

Most of Pepkor, the pan-African clothing retailer Pep, is now part of STAR, which is in the process of changing its name to Pepkor to distance itself from its parent.