The South African billionaire who has recently snapped up Virgin Active, the gym chain, and New Look, the high-street retailer, is now training his sights on Britain’s struggling supermarket industry, it can be revealed.
Christo Wiese, who has an estimated £4.2bn fortune, said there were parallels between the grocery sector in his home country, where he has built up the ShopRite empire into the continent’s largest food retailer, and the highly competitive UK market.
All the big players in the UK are reeling from an intense price war and a change in shopping habits. Analysts have said that this tough environment makes it unlikely that the food sector will attract new investment.
But 73-year-old Mr Wiese, who owns a 19pc stake in Iceland, the frozen food chain, and has been linked with a potential takeover of Morrisons, brushed off such concerns and suggested his investment firm, Brait, could be making its next venture in the UK’s supermarket sector.
“The UK is extremely competitive but I can assure you it is as competitive in South Africa, if not more,” he told The Telegraph. “We South Africans find it very easy to do business in the UK; it is similar, and it has the same challenges.”
Mr Wiese bought Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Active in a £682m deal and New Look for £1.9bn in a two-month bout of deal-making between April and June this year. The billionaire is also launching a new UK fashion chain, called Pep & Co, specialising in discount fashion and childrenswear. Mr Wiese started ShopRite in 1979 with just eight stores in Cape Town, but the company now owns more than 2,000 supermarkets, furniture shops and food outlets in 15 countries, with sales in South Africa of £2.2bn.
The entrepreneur said that he would be prepared to overlook some of Brait’s strict investment criteria if there was the right opportunity in the grocery sector. “I’ve always explained that any business we look at has to tick certain boxes – facing the cash consumer, strong management with a proven track record and with skin in the game, great growth potential both nationally and internationally and hugely cash generative.”
He added: “If Shoprite perceives the right opportunity they will certainly pursue it.”
In an aside, which could also be read as a warning to Tesco and Sainsbury’s should Brait make a move, Mr Wiese said: “We have to compete with all the beasts in the world, there’s no hiding, and if you don’t want to compete you mustn’t get in the arena.”
Mr Wiese has expressed a fondness for the discount sector, with Pep & Co also selling T-shirts from £2.
Mr Wiese, who will be inducted into the World Retail Congress’s Hall of Fame at a ceremony next week, also denied that he had ever been interested in taking over the department store chain BHS before it was sold for £1 by Sir Philip Green to Retail Acquisitions.