By Alexandra Wexler, Zeke Turner and William Boston
This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (December 7, 2017).
JOHANNESBURG -- Retail giant Steinhoff International Holdings NV, which owns American mattress brand Sleepy's and a string of chains across Europe, said on Wednesday its chief executive has resigned amid an investigation into accounting irregularities.
Steinhoff shares, which are listed in both Frankfurt and Johannesburg, fell more than 60% on Wednesday after the departure of Markus Jooste was disclosed, more than halving the value of a company that was worth more than $14 billion the day before.
German prosecutors in Oldenburg, Germany, who have jurisdiction over Steinhoff, launched an investigation in August into allegations that the company's management used off-balance sheet entities to hide losses in its operations and artificially pump up its valuation.
Steinhoff, which has previously denied those allegations, said on Wednesday it had hired accountancy firm PwC to conduct an independent investigation in light of what it said was new information relating to accounting irregularities. It didn't detail any specific issues and didn't respond to requests for comment. Mr. Jooste couldn't be reached for comment.
The company had been expected to release its results for the year ended Sept. 30 on Wednesday, but said it has postponed publication.
Steinhoff said it appointed Chairman Christo Wiese, one of South Africa's richest men, as executive chairman on an interim basis, and said he would conduct a detailed review of the business.
German prosecutors have focused on the suspicion that "inflated revenues flowed into company subsidiaries," Torben Björn Tölle, a spokesman for the Oldenburg prosecutor, said in a statement. The suspect revenues came from "contracts through which subsidiary companies sold intangible assets or company shares, each for a sum in the three-digit millions [of euros], to alleged third parties that have close ties to the company, according to the investigation," Mr. Tölle said.
In August, the Oldenburg prosecutor also said it was investigating four current and former Steinhoff executives on suspicion of making "false representations in the balance sheet." The individuals weren't named.
For Steinhoff, the German probe has clouded what had until recently was an acquisition-fueled push into some of the world's biggest retail markets.
Steinhoff doubled down on Africa when it bought discount clothing retailer Pepkor in 2015 for about $5.7 billion at the time. Pepkor's Africa operations and Steinhoff's other African retail businesses now form separately listed Steinhoff Africa Retail Ltd.
Last year Steinhoff agreed to pay $2.4 billion for Sleepy's owner Mattress Firm Holding Corp. The company also acquired British discount retailer Poundland Group PLC in 2016 for GBP597 million ($716 million).
The majority of Steinhoff's business is now in Europe, where it sells furniture and bedding through a number of brands, from Germany and Switzerland to Poland and Bulgaria. It also has operations in Australia.
Steinhoff International moved its primary listing abroad in late 2015, following other South African corporate giants such as Anglo American PLC and luxury-goods giant Cie. Financière Richemont SA. The companies all retain a secondary listing on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
Write to Alexandra Wexler at [email protected], Zeke Turner at [email protected] and William Boston at [email protected]