Steinhoff. Picture: BLOOMBERG/DWAYNE SENIOR
Steinhoff. Picture: BLOOMBERG/DWAYNE SENIOR

Steinhoff International, the one-time giant of South African retailing, had its income inflated to the tune of more than R100bn over the course of nine years by an inner clique of senior executives in what has become the country's largest corporate scandal.

On Friday, the company once led by disgraced tycoon Markus Jooste released a long-awaited report by auditing firm PwC detailing some of the nefarious accounting practices in the company - 15 months after the furniture and household-goods retailer's share price collapsed.

The sell-off cost pension funds and other institutional and individual investors many billions of rands - notable among them Christo Wiese, who lost half of his listed wealth. The scandal has given rise to several investigations and a host of class-action lawsuits yet to be heard.

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But Steinhoff's South African operations, which include Pep, Tekkie Town and Ackermans in the Pepkor Holdings stable, have not been soiled by the creative accounting that inflated profits in some of the group's European businesses, the company said.

Steinhoff tasked PwC to investigate and this month received the auditing firm's report - a bulky file reportedly containing as many as 15,000 pages. It released an 11-page summary of the report late on Friday.

Though not naming Jooste directly, the company said the people allegedly responsible for the inflated profits, overstated asset values, fictitious or irregular transactions and fake income were led by a "senior management executive". This person instructed a few other executives to commit the abuses with the help of a small number of people not employed by the group.

PwC auditors interviewed most of Steinhoff's management board and supervisory board. But so far, Jooste is dodging and weaving.

"[Jooste] and certain other individuals have not yet made themselves available for an interview with PwC and discussions are ongoing regarding the basis on which any such interviews may take place," Steinhoff said.

The key findings in the report have convinced Steinhoff to pursue claims against "certain individuals that appear responsible for the unlawful conduct identified". The company will take on the people, who it does not name, in various jurisdictions.

Steinhoff itself is facing claims of more than R100bn and will be but one of the respondents, who include current and former directors and auditors Deloitte, in a planned class-action lawsuit by aggrieved investors in several countries.

Wiese, who sold Pepkor to Steinhoff in 2014 - then the biggest deal in South African history - is suing the company for nearly R60bn. He declined to comment on the report, saying that he wants to read it first.

Steinhoff, before the share price collapse of December 2017, was the seventh biggest company listed on the JSE. It was started in the mid-1960s in Germany.

In the late 1990s Steinhoff International was formed by merging the European business with a string of South African furniture manufacturing assets, then run by Jooste, and listing on the JSE.

In a dizzying spree of acquisitions, Jooste reshaped Steinhoff from a manufacturer to a retailer, in the past decade scooping up SA's JD Group, France's Conforama, Britain's Poundland and US-based Mattress Firm.

Steinhoff's exposure to foreign markets made it a must for South African investors who wanted to be less exposed to the floundering domestic economy, especially after the company moved its primary listing to Frankfurt, Germany, in 2015.

But in December 2017, Jooste's sudden resignation and the announcement that financial results would not be released as scheduled pummelled the share price. The company revealed previously undisclosed debts, which by the middle of last year had pushed up its total debt to nearly €10bn (R163bn).

Steinhoff has spent most of the time since selling off assets and drawing up deals with creditors to stay afloat.

The PwC report is vital in the company's quest to release its 2017 and 2018 annual results. The financials are expected to be published in the next few months.

"Shareholders are entitled to the full report . not just the summary that will be released to the market," said Gryphon Asset Management portfolio manager Casparus Treurnicht.