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Christo Wiese: Africa's Sam Walton

From shirts to furniture to groceries, Christo Wiese sells billions in low-cost goods to a continent clamouring for them. America could be next

Published: Mar 30, 2016 06:29:05 AM IST
Updated: Mar 23, 2016 04:06:07 PM IST
Christo Wiese: Africa's Sam Walton
Image: Inge Prins for Forbes

Table Mountain, the striking mesa above Cape Town, lords over another impressive African monument: The multistory Golden Acre shopping centre. Lunchtime crowds pour into the glassy, brightly-lit structure, and from within it is impossible not to notice the dominance of South Africa’s second-richest man, Christo Wiese. His bargain-bin clothier, PEP, pulls foot traffic to the basement. Above it, you’ll find his more upscale Ackermans chain. Around the corner is his OK Furniture and his grocery chain, Shoprite, which takes up two floors.

By and large, they all carry the same message. PEP’s window ads, accented in canary yellow, proclaim it to be the home of the “Lowest Price in South Africa”. Brightly coloured bunting in OK Furniture heralds a similar promise. Shoprite (among its many slogans: “Lower prices, that’s our promise”) will even play moneylender, fronting customers up to 7,500 South African rand (roughly $470).

“The business has basically been built on one slogan: Low prices you can trust. Just very, very low everyday prices,” says Wiese (whose name, fittingly, is pronounced VEE-sa, like the credit card). “I suppose we could be described as the Walmart of Africa.” Underscoring the cost-conscious philosophy, the 74-year-old is telling me this at his company headquarters, in an industrial area that abuts a composter and Adult World, which sells what you think it does. His offices, like his stores, are decidedly spare: Drab beige enlivened only by some hotel-quality art (a portrait of an elephant herd hangs outside the door of the conference room he uses as an office). “People have very limited budgets,” continues Wiese, clad in a capitalist’s power uniform—blue suit, blue shirt—the very picture of the lily-white executive that still controls most of South African business. “They have to get extremely good value for their money.”

His hunch—that value trumps everything—led him to create the largest retail business in Africa. Publicly traded Shoprite does revenue of $9.9 billion a year, while PEP’s parent company, Steinhoff, brings in $11.8 billion (some of it from selling cellphones and home furnishings). Combined, they net almost $2 billion in annual profits, operate more than 9,000 stores in 30 countries and employ over 200,000 people. No other African retailer comes close to rivalling their breadth and depth, and Wiese controls both.

Those stakes are largely what makes Wiese one of the planet’s richest people, with a $5.8 billion fortune. More than 60 percent of his wealth is in Shoprite and Steinhoff, while another 30 percent or so comes from his shares of Brait, an investment vehicle Wiese uses to buy other companies, many of them outside South Africa. His stock in Tradehold, a real estate firm, accounts for much of the remaining 10 percent.

But if Wiese is to continue his expansion he must move outside of his African comfort zone. The continent isn’t booming the way it once was. Economic growth across Africa has slid from close to 7 percent in 2007 to about 4 percent in 2014, the last year for which data are available. In coming years, it isn’t likely to much surpass that figure. South Africa, still Wiese’s most important market, is emblematic of the larger trend—stuck at sub-2 percent growth for the foreseeable future. The slowdown gravely threatens Wiese’s ambitions. He can shut his eyes and picture his empire twice as big as it is today, but for it to grow that large, he must look beyond Africa.

And he’s already started. PEP is expanding rapidly in Europe, while Wiese is snapping up all sorts of companies through Brait, including majority stakes in British discount retailer (sound familiar?) New Look for $1.2 billion last June and Richard Branson’s fitness centre chain, Virgin Active, for $1 billion a month later. Put broadly, Wiese is a little Sam Walton, in terms of his focus, and a little Warren Buffett, in terms of amalgamating a portfolio. As a matter of fact, he’s beaten Buffett handily lately. His holding company, Brait, has trounced Berkshire Hathaway in total returns over three years (160 percent versus 31 percent), five years (230 percent to 51 percent) and 10 years (314 percent to 121 percent).

Christo Wiese: Africa's Sam Walton
(Clockwise from top left) A PEP store in 1973, 1986 and 2015. Much of its strategy has remained the same: No-frills shops crowded with merchandise, easy-to-spot price tags and the same three colours—blue, yellow and white

“Christo has been a massive risk taker his whole life,” says Syd Vianello, a retail analyst in Johannesburg, who has observed Wiese over many decades. “Africa is not a place for sissies. You’ve got to have nerves of steel. In Africa they see him as a genius.”

The breathtaking views of Cape Town, where land and sea dramatically converge to produce vistas of green mountains towering above deep blue water, can be quickly forgotten on a nine-hour drive north to the dry, hot savanna city of Upington, an unsightly provincial town alongside the Orange River, close to the Kalahari Desert. Upington does possess one unique site: A statue of a donkey, a rare tribute to the quintessential beast of burden. It is not undeserved. Starting in the 1880s, farmers, employing donkeys to pump water, tamed this rough part of the country with an almost puritanical ­determination.

Wiese’s father was one of those men. He owned a sheep and cattle farm, as well as a car dealership in town. “People in Upington were hardworking, very neat, very orderly—disciplined,” says Wiese. “People who were not neat always stood out like a sore thumb.” For college, Wiese attended Stellenbosch University, one of South Africa’s better schools, situated in a sleepy area awash in wine and vineyards. He studied law and became head student of his residence hall and an active member of a progressive student organisation.

After graduating in 1967, he decided he’d rather return home and join the small retail business owned by his cousin’s husband than become an attorney. The company had around 10 discount stores near Upington, which were called PEP. With Wiese on board and helping guide expansion, sales went from 4 million rand in 1970 to 29 million rand (around $100 million today) four years later. Fast growth, but Wiese lost interest after a moment of self-discovery.

“I had worked out for myself that I’m not really”—he trails off, as if about to utter a dirty word—“a number-two man.” There was another concern, too. “I started thinking about getting married,” he says. “And the way I lived in those days, I was away from home 20 days a month. That’s no way to build a marriage. So I thought if I go and practise law, at least I’ll be home much more.”

While working as a barrister in criminal and commercial law in Cape Town, Wiese, restless still, made a futile run for parliament in 1977 on the opposition party ticket, partly inspired by his new father-in-law, a controversial member of parliament expelled from the ruling, pro-Apartheid party for dissension. Wiese also grew interested in something that has always attracted the ambitious in South Africa—diamonds. He found a mine nearer his hometown, in Richtersveld. (“The area has a stark beauty, like a moon landscape. Very sparse vegetation, very little rainfall.”) He bought it for about $20 million in today’s currency and began mining and trading diamonds.

Five years after purchasing it, in 1981, he sold it, and looking for his next chapter, he turned to his cousin and PEP, which by then had 450 locations, including a grocery business, Shoprite, it had added a few years earlier. In taking a cheque (worth roughly $100 million in current terms) for his successful, middling business, the cousin was set for life. Wiese, no longer number two, pictured something much grander. “Maybe I was more ambitious,” he says, quietly, eyebrows arched.

What Wiese envisioned was retail at its rawest, and he understood how attractive it could be. In modest, unadorned storefronts, PEP sold only the simplest kinds of clothes (“underwear, schoolwear, very basic stuff”). The choice between a white shirt and a blue one was often the most complicated one in the store. Shoprite did the same with groceries. All that mattered to Wiese’s target market—poor whites and a black population kept systematically impoverished—was price.

In a perverse twist, Apartheid ensured him a gigantic customer base of some 20 million non-whites, who made up more than 70 percent of the population. They were incapable of climbing the ladder or earning more money—or shopping elsewhere. And the heavy economic sanctions against South Africa meant little in the way of foreign competition. It was a perfect market: Massive and artificially protected.

Christo Wiese: Africa's Sam Walton

“Wiese saw the opportunity faster than anybody else,” says retail analyst Vianello. “He targeted the bottom end of the market, and nobody could argue his business had any element of waste. He cut out all the extravagance and gave people what they wanted at the lowest possible price.” The concept proved popular enough for Wiese to begin expanding aggressively, sometimes opening as many as 100 new stores a year. While other retailers concentrated on stores in large markets, he eagerly plunged into rural and poorer areas. He’d rather his customers spend their money in his stores than spend it travelling to them.

Wiese was maniacal about costs, a business necessity in low-margin retailing and perfectly fitting with his personality—a billionaire who keeps spare change neatly stashed in a tiny bottle inside his Lexus SUV. “Christo is stingy,” says James “Whitey” Basson, Wiese’s right-hand man at Shoprite since day one and an old buddy from Stellenbosch University. “He’ll give me the nicest bottle of champagne as a present, and I’ll open it up, and I’ll see he forgot to take out the message: It’s a bottle from Lord So-and-So. He’s a regifter.”

To guard against corporate expenses, PEP manufactured many of its clothes in 11 factories; one was situated next to the company’s modest offices in Parow Industria. Most important, from almost the start, PEP relied on a central distribution system with ware­houses to store goods, a total departure from how most South African retailers operated (with many deliveries from many suppliers to each shop). “That was a no-brainer,” Basson says. “Getting one truckload to a store is substantially cheaper than getting 30 trucks to wait outside the store and offload 30 different times.”

In 1986, Wiese spun off Shoprite and PEP into separate public companies while maintaining control of both. Good timing. Four years later, Nelson Mandela was freed after spending almost three decades in prison. Apartheid was ending. South African companies were no longer pariahs, and Wiese began to expand elsewhere in Africa. A year after Mandela ascended to the presidency in 1994, Shoprite opened its first store in central Africa, in Zambia, followed by Mozambique, Swaziland, Bo­tswa­na, Zimbabwe and Uganda. PEP had a similar trajectory. Their stores’ simple model made them easily exportable.

“Wiese and Basson sat down and took a view that they could conquer Africa, and they went out and conquered Africa,” says Vianello. Shoprite’s size ($2 billion in 1996 sales with about $120 million in cash flow and little debt) allowed it to move more quickly than local rivals. “How long does it take to clear a container in Angola or Nigeria? What bribes do you have to pay to get supplies in? Who on earth would finance them to put up stores? They had to build their own stores themselves. No one else would.” (Wiese insists he has spent not one rand on bribery.)

Other growth came through acquisitions. By the 1990s, he had already made six purchases to expand both Shoprite and PEP, pushing PEP’s operations as far as Britain and its sales to more than $2 billion. In 1997, he bought OK Bazaars (and its nearly 300 grocery and furniture stores) from South African Breweries for just one rand. The catch? OK Bazaars was losing around $40 million annually, which was just about how much Shoprite was booking in annual profits. It could be kept on life support for just so long.

“We bet the farm,” says Wiese. He reached for a familiar page from the playbook: “Cutting frills, lowering overhead”, including renegotiating several onerous leases. As it turns out, OK Bazaars had good bones and had simply been mismanaged. “Christo is a fantastic corporate deal thinker,” says Basson. “He always makes me think: What would the alternative be if I didn’t make a deal? What happens if the opposition buys the company?”

Christo Wiese: Africa's Sam Walton
Image: Getty Images
With over 2,500 stores, Shoprite dominates Africa

Wiese didn’t really develop a profile outside of Africa until recently, and to his annoyance, his arrival was trumpeted not by a cunning deal but by something more ignoble. It came after UK customs officials detained him at London City Airport in 2009 with two suitcases filled with nearly $1 million in cash. They seized it, suspecting illicit origins. The British and South African press merrily picked up on the incident—apparently suspecting Wiese had been nabbed for money laundering—and were further emboldened by Wiese’s stubbornness in fighting for the funds’ return and his insistence that the amount was “insignificant”.(The Daily Mail’s gleeful headline: “It’s Just Peanuts to Me”.) The government ended up returning the money—interest attached—but the damage was done. He still won’t talk publicly about the incident, and until recently, it was pretty much the extent of his reputation in the West.

That’s now beginning to change, and much of his activity is still in Britain. When his holding company, Brait, first showed an interest in stretching beyond South Africa in 2012, it invested in British supermarket business Iceland Foods and added to its position in November 2015, when it paid about $275 million to increase its position from 19 percent to 57 percent. Two more deals came last year: The stakes purchased in discount retailer New Look and gym chain Virgin Active. A second Wiese company, Invicta, has put its capital into industrial companies: Unsexy firms with predictable, recurring revenue streams, like Singapore-based Kian Ann Engineering, a distributor of heavy machinery parts. And a third Wiese vehicle, Tradehold, watched the value of its UK property portfolio increase by about 50 percent to roughly $120 million in February 2015 (the latest full-year results available), driven substantially by new investments in the British real estate market, where it owns residential, industrial and office space.

PEP has charged into eastern Europe, too. After its initial move into this part of the continent in 2005 (Poland mostly but also the Czech Republic and Slovakia), PEP has proven its model successful there. Its eastern European stores do about $1,800 per square meter, a 60 percent increase from 2012 and roughly double what a comparable competitor might do. The region is now 11 percent of PEP’s $2.9 billion in annual revenue (up from 5 percent in 2012).

Christo Wiese: Africa's Sam Walton
With over 2,500 stores, Shoprite dominates Africa; Wiese’s empire also includes South Africa’s House & Home and OK Furniture brands

As PEP broadens its store expansion into Britain it will likely run up against the most entrenched competition, including venerable discount retailer Primark. Considering this, Wiese blithely expresses a malapropism: “There’s the old American saying that only three things are certain: Death, taxes and competition. You can’t shy away from competition. You’ve just got to go meet them.”

Besides, Primark tries to be fashionable, while PEP proudly does not. “We don’t have fashion. You can’t come into our stores and expect a wide selection of colours and pattern,” says Steinhoff CEO Markus Jooste. “Our stuff is for people who have to have it, not want to have it. It offers value to the bottom-end customer and gives them some dignity in what they wear.”

Last December, expansion-minded Steinhoff began trading on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in addition to its long-standing listing in Johannesburg. But not before Wiese got slapped with a reminder that his international ambitions wouldn’t proceed without a false step.

A few days before its Frankfurt debut, German tax authorities raided local Steinhoff offices as part of an investigation into its accounting. Steinhoff dismisses the investigation as baseless, but it certainly spooked the company’s investors. The stock dropped about 15 percent in a month—wiping away almost $600 million from Wiese’s personal fortune.

Having long parried ad­vances from those interested in buying his companies—including a visit by Walmart heir and then chairman Rob Walton several years ago—Wiese sees himself firmly in command of his empire for the foreseeable future. Ahead, there’s one obvious final frontier for Africa’s retail pioneer: America. “We’ve been hesitant to plunge into the retail industry there. What can we teach them?” he says. “But we’re looking at getting involved there—one or two opportunities.

“In a decade I’m hoping you’ll find the business has grown, hopefully at the same pace as the previous decade. That will require a lot of thinking, a lot of commitment and a lot of energy—and I’m hoping that you’ll find me right here still.”

(This story appears in the 01 April, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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