Steinhoff chair Heather Sonn was ‘not aware of need to disclose transaction’
Steinhoff’s vice-chair says Sonn had not participated in any accounting irregularities
Heather Sonn became the second chair of Steinhoff, which is in the throes of a R100bn-plus accounting fraud saga, to resign after a firm she partly owns got entangled in the web of questionable bookkeeping practices.
Sonn’s departure follows that of Christo Wiese, who was also the top shareholder, following the disclosure of a complex scheme where inter-company transactions worth €6.5bn (about R130bn) were fraudulently recorded as external income to overstate Steinhoff’s profits and hide its losses.
Sonn, who was instrumental in the company’s revival efforts from the scandal that left it on the brink, said a company in which she was a shareholder was involved in a deal with another that now appears to have been associated with and funded by Steinhoff.
"I requested that this transaction be placed on the list for investigation by PwC," Sonn said in a statement referring to the PwC investigation report of the bookkeeping practices, the summary of which was made public a year ago. "Based on what is now known to me it would have required certain disclosures, which I would have made had I been aware thereof."
Under international accounting standards, in instances where executives of companies do business with companies in which they are also directors, they are required to file related-party disclosures.
Sonn declined to comment beyond the statement in which she also said the reason it took two years to work out the relationship between Steinhoff and Geros Financial Services, which “unwittingly” completed the deal with her company, was that Steinhoff juggled multiple priorities at the time.
"This has gone so far wrong. Related-party transactions are clearly defined, and the chairperson had ample opportunity to disclose this to shareholders," said shareholder activist Theo Botha.
"Shareholders should ask themselves whether Sonn was looking after their interests, or her own."
Sonn became the de facto face of the firm over the past three years, fielding questions from investors, who watched as their equity was wiped out, and from bankers and politicians as she worked alongside others to keep the firm afloat.
"It is important to note that Ms Sonn has in no way been found to have participated in the accounting irregularities at Steinhoff," said Steinhoff’s vice-chair of the supervisory board, Peter Wakkie, in the statement.
Sonn’s "strong and calm leadership has been invaluable during the turbulent times that the group has faced since December 2017", Wakkie said.
Steinhoff’s share price gained 1% to R1.01 on Monday, having lost more than 98% of its value over the past three years.