Billionaire Christo Wiese's route to South African retail king

Billionaire Christo Wiese has long been considered the doyen of South African retail.

But his rise to become one of his country's richest businessmen began from humble beginnings, when he and his entrepreneurial family bought into Pep Stores, a small four-store discount clothing chain around Upington, a town in the remote Northern Cape province in 1965.

From there it has been story of one deal after another as his business empire has mushroomed to stretch across Africa, Europe and Asia, while the 73-year-old's net worth has soared to $6.9bn, according to Forbes Magazine.

He capped a recent spending spree of the British high street on Friday, acquiring a controlling stake in New Look through his majority-owned private equity firm Brait. He recently also bought a large stake in Virgin Active health clubs.

He became executive chairman of Pep Stores in 1981 and the following year changed its name to Pepkor. The company, which was listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 1972 went on to spread its footprint across Africa, Australia and Poland.

Last year, he sold it to Steinhoff International, a South African furniture company, in a $5.7bn cash-and-share transaction, making it one of South Africa's largest deals. The deal left Mr Wiese with 20 per cent of Steinhoff.

He has also profited from his 35 per cent stake in Brait - the investment house received R15bn ($1.27bn) and 200m Steinhoff shares for its 37 per cent interest in Pepkor. That provided it with a cash injection to go on its recent swoop on the British high street.

He dismisses any suggestion that his recent spurt of overseas deals is driven by a desire to take his assets offshore or hedge against the volatile South African rand.

"There's no one-way bet on the rand, so that has certainly not been a driving force in my decisions, it's simply we need to grow, we need to create opportunities," he said in an interview.

Mr Wiese's interests across the South African market also means competition laws are a hurdle to expanding through acquisitions in his home market.

"In South Africa, we are growing our businesses here very strongly organically and we also growing very strongly into the rest of Africa," Mr Wiese says. "But into the rest of Africa, things are slow because there is still a huge infrastructure backlog so it takes time."

It was through Pep Stores that Mr Wiese acquired Shoprite - another key member of his portfolio - for R1m.

At the time it had eight stores in Cape Town, but Shoprite has since grown into an African behemoth. It was one of the first South African groups to see the potential growth across the continent and today boasts a presence across 15 countries with more than 2,000 stores. It had sales of about R102bn last year. Mr Wiese remains Shoprite's chairman and its single largest shareholder with a 15 per cent stake in the group.

There have been controversies along the way. In 2010 UK customs officials confiscated about £600,000 he was carrying in his luggage as he went through Heathrow airport. The money was later returned with interest and Mr Wiese was not charged with anything, but it was an embarrassing episode for the tycoon.

He says Brait still has "substantial capacity" to invest. But he adds: "We've just done two very major deals, three if you think of the sale of Pepkor, so I don't think one should hold one's breath for a major deal in the short term."

Mr Wiese puts the secret to his success down to having "very good people running these businesses."

"They are all my partners in a way, they all hold stakes in the businesses they run and that's the model I've developed," he says.

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