The King of Retail

Published 10 years ago
The King of Retail

From a confiscated briefcase at Heathrow Airport to being lambasted by the press over his business with the tax man, Christo Wiese has no airs about him. Only his gold Rolex watch gives you a glimpse of his wealth.

There is no doubt that Wiese is a formidable businessman, who has made a meaningful impact in the South African retail industry. As he sits in his boardroom—which is larger than his family’s first store—overlooking Industria, Cape Town, he’s either on the phone making arrangements, giving assurances or chatting to his broker. This is a far cry from his childhood in a small South African farming town, a place he calls an oasis.

Wiese’s father was a farmer and businessman in Upington in the Northern Cape, like many in his family before him, armed with basic informal schooling and his entrepreneurial spirit. Wiese is proud when he talks about how his parents never worked for anyone.

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“I grew up in a household where that [entrepreneurship] was the way one approached life, which I found was a great benefit to me,” says Wiese.

Lanzerac Wine Estate

Wiese shows much affection towards his late mother, referring to her as a woman of great wisdom with a lot of drive, who had a strong influence in his life. She was a housewife who eventually owned her own business too.

Unlike his father, Wiese spent his last two years of high school at the prestigious Paarl Boys High school and moved to Cape Town to study further at UCT. After a year, he dropped out and moved back to Upington to join his father in business.

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At 21, Wiese left Upington to study law at the University of Stellenbosch, whose alumni include some of South Africa’s wealthiest: Johann Rupert, Koos Bekker, GT Ferreira and Jannie Mouton. Wiese’s parents co-founded Pep Stores in 1965 and were its second largest shareholders. He worked for the company during his vacations, driving around the country with the major shareholder looking for locations to open new shops.

Wiese graduated in 1967 but returned to the family business instead of practicing law. There, Wiese dealt with administrative duties such as keeping minutes and updating share certificates. He got stuck in it and did what needed to be done.

In 1973, law came calling and Wiese practiced at the Cape Bar until 1979. During this time he bought a stake in a diamond mining company, the largest in South Africa not belonging to De Beers.

A businessman at heart, Wiese bought the controlling stake in Pep Stores from the founder in 1981, at the age of 36, and renamed it Pepkor Limited.

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The decision to expand Pepkor’s footprint to Europe in the early ‘90s came about as Wiese realized that international brands would be coming to South Africa to compete with them. Once again, proving to be a savvy businessman, Wiese made the choice to take the competition to the rest of the world, with what he deemed a good formula that could be transferred to developed economies.

“We realized that as South Africa was opening up to the world, the world was opening up to South Africa,” says Wiese.

Pepkor’s business model is simple: high volume, low margin. If you look at the group’s history all the businesses follow this model except Stuttafords. The premium department store caters to the high-end customer and was a default acquisition when Pepkor bought Greatermans Department Stores in 1991. This was not the business the group wanted; their target was the Checkers supermarket chain, Stuttafords was sold a few years later.

Wiese’s Shoprite became the first of the group’s companies to expand into Zambia. The old OK Bazaar chain was bought from the government after being nationalized and run into the ground by the Kaunda government. The chain was rejuvenated and Pep opened in Zambia in 1994.

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In 1999, Pepkor delisted from the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, at $331.4 million, after being listed for 27 years as Pep Stores. Pepkor had been approached by Brait, a private equity company, which advised them to delist. Brait proposed that Pepkor would do better at that stage as an unlisted entity. Following this, management acquired a substantial stake in the company. Brait owns a 37% stake in Pepkor. Wiese says the group, or parts of it, could be listed in the future.

Pepkor’s success has led it to have
John Craig and Shoe City in its stable.

As cut-throat as business can be at times, those that are successful have spent years building and maintaining good relationships. Wiese and South African investment millionaire Jannie Mouton go a long way back. The two sit on the board of KWV Limited and Wiese used to sit on the board of Mouton’s PSG Holdings. Mouton has nothing but admiration for Wiese.

“I think what’s important is that he understands risk. He’s not scared to take risks. He believes in himself and he will back it, he’s not scared to raise money for a good business proposition,” says Mouton.

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Wiese’s investment strategy is three pronged: get the best possible returns; invest in ethical businesses and remember that investing is a long-term game. This is the philosophy of the chairman of Pepkor, Shoprite, Tradehold and non-executive chairman of Invicta Holdings and Brait SA.

Tradehold is an investment holding company listed on the main board of the JSE, its main interests lie particularly in property in the United Kingdom, which is hoping to expand. Wiese owns around 80% of the company, with a market capitalization of around $137.5 million.

Invicta is an investment holding and management company with a market capitalization of around $770.6 million. The company controls and manages assets of $934 937 and finalized an acquisition in Singapore, its first outside Africa. Wiese owns around 37% of the company.

Wiese feels that the driving force of any entrepreneur should be to build businesses and help people develop. This, he says, is the true measure of success.

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“The objective for people like myself is not to see how much money you can make because there’ll always be somebody richer than you. So what the heck?” says Wiese.

“I often say to people that I know a lot of people who’ve made a lot of money in different businesses, in different formats, with different styles but the one golden thread is that to make money takes decades.”

Pepkor is testament to this in its 57 years; Wiese has been part of 47 of them. As the man behind this growth, Wiese points out that it was a step-by-step process that had its ups and downs. His worst knock happened in 1985 when the rand collapsed. The company bled money, when the rand lost 50% of its value in a few months because of its significant dollar exposures. The balance sheet was under strain and the company had to be restructured. Shoprite was listed separately and some of the non-core assets were sold off. In one year, the company went from interest bearing debt of R140 million to having R110 million in the bank, at the time.

Getting out of a corner is something, Wiese says, only experience can teach you.

As a man who has done business across the continent for decades, Wiese calls himself a committed and optimistic African. He feels that Africa is shedding its old image; that a new Africa is emerging. He marvels at how people can still look at the continent with, what he calls, “old eyes”. He says that whenever something negative happens in Africa the “afro-pessimists”, as he calls them, turn it into a catastrophe but if the same were to happen anywhere else, it would purely be a setback. He considers the events at Marikana, where Lonmin mine strikes turned violent, a prime example.

Although Wiese is best-known for his business interests in retail, he has also tested other waters. Wiese was not looking to get into the hospitality industry when he bought the Lanzerac Wine Estate in 1991, on the outskirts of Stellenbosch. With a five star hotel on the premises, Wiese bought it as a new home for his family but as much as they loved the estate they loved their Clifton beach house even more.

Wiese chose not to walk away from Stellenbosch when his family did, simply because the place gave him too much pleasure. The wine estate was run down and the vineyards had been neglected for 25 years. But he saw something in it. Wiese spent a lot of money refurbishing the hotel, replanting the vineyards, building the cellars and developing the property. The magnificent 300-year-old estate was sold in 2012. The billionaire now owns Lourensford Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, bought in 1998.

On the rare occasions when Wiese isn’t too busy buying companies and making deals worth millions, he enjoys hunting, clay pigeon shooting, playing with his dog, catching up with old friends and spending the last three weeks of the year at his beach house.

None of this compares to his private game reserve in the Kalahari. Wiese always dreamt of owning a farm close to where he grew up but never spends more than two or three days at a time there. It’s his way of giving back through conservation, while running it as a business to keep it sustainable.

“If it pays and washes its own face and gives a little of a return on the capital employed, then it is sustainable,” says Wiese.

Wiese is no stranger to making headlines. In 2009, Wiese was stopped by customs official at London’s Heathrow Airport where he was carrying a briefcase filled with just over a million dollars. The money was confiscated and the matter went to court. Wiese insists that he acted on the advice that it would not be an issue. Wiese’s advocate stated that the money was less than what his client made in a week. The courts ruled in his favor and the money returned.

“It’s my money. I didn’t steal it from anybody. I didn’t defraud anybody. It’s my money and it’s certainly my right to do with it as I please,” he declares.

The media criticized the earnings of Shoprite CEO Whitey Basson, who topped the list of top earning executives in 2010, which was released by the Business Times. Basson earned more than $82.7 million that year but dropped in rankings to 20th the following year. He did however earn the largest bonus of $4,398,470 in 2011. Wiese counters that Basson is underpaid for the work he does and all he has produced for Shoprite’s stakeholders. Wiese says it’s too big a job for him to ever be tempted to do it himself.

Shoprite was bought in 1979 for R1 million, with fewer than 500 employees and eight stores. Basson was put in charge and the company is now Africa’s largest food retailer with a reported turnover of more than $9.25 billion for the year ended June 2012. Shoprite has a market capitalization of more than $23.23 billion and 2,033 stores across Africa, including the group’s subsidiaries. Wiese is the largest shareholder of Shoprite.

“I’m not an entrepreneur… You could best describe me as an entrepreneurial financer or investor,” he says.

But he understands entrepreneurs, which is exactly why he thinks so highly of Basson. He has brought others into businesses who are the opposite of Basson. These individuals, however, either didn’t grow the business or ran it down, despite their impressive credentials and promises.

In return Basson thinks highly of his boss.

“Christo Wiese is probably the most respected businessman in South Africa. He has the ability to dissect problems and opportunities without emotions or personal complexities. As non-executive chairman of Shoprite and a close personal friend we not only respect his judgments but also seek his advice,” says Basson.

Another painful media experience for Wiese was about his tax payments. He was reported as owing the South African Revenue Services, SARS, $274.905 million in unpaid taxes. While it’s unlawful to disclose a person’s tax affairs, he says that he doesn’t settle his legal matters in the press and that SARS has not dragged him to court regarding this.

“Personally I don’t have, as an individual, any taxable income because my income comes from my companies and that income comes from dividends, which are not taxable. If I owe you money, sue me,” challenges Wiese.

Wiese’s company Tradehold won a court case against the commissioner of SARS regarding additional assessment of $48,533,200 on the company’s capital gains in 2003.

This newsworthy 71-year-old billionaire is not looking to retire anytime soon. He wouldn’t know what do with himself if he did. He is, however, grooming his eldest son, Jacob (30), to take over the business. Wiese also hopes that both his daughters, one a non-practising lawyer, like her father, and the other a recent graduate from the London School of Economics, will join the family business someday.

“I asked Rob Walton, of the Walton family, whether their children are in the business and he said: ‘No’ and I said: ‘Well, what do you teach your children then?’ and he said: ‘We teach them to be responsible owners.’ And maybe that’s a good thing,” says Wiese.

The next 10 years for the Pepkor Group are said to be very much like the last 10: a continued high growth path focused on plugging into technology.