When he talks, people listen; when he moves money, markets react and when he invests, many follow. He is Christo Wiese, Africa’s third richest man after Aliko Dangote and Nicky Oppenheimer & family, according to FORBES’ list of Africa’s 50 richest, and the creator of Africa’s largest retail store. He is ever busy as he adds to his $6.5 billion fortune, but his last investment raised a few eyebrows.
As we meet, Wiese is dressed in black pants and a black sweater; you may mistake him for an ordinary bloke on the street in Cape Town, South Africa. But, there is nothing ordinary about this man when it comes to business. His creation, Shoprite, earns revenue of $9.9 billion a year, at a time when retail is struggling. Steinhoff, the parent company of Wiese’s retail company PEP, brings in $11.8 billion. Combined, they net almost $2 billion in annual profits, operate more than 9,000 stores in 30 countries and employ over 200,000 people. He made his fortune from smart investments that earned him billions. So, why is he looking to venture into Africa’s glittering, but struggling, diamond industry?
The family businesses, Cream Magenta 140 Proprietary Ltd. and Metcap 14 Proprietary Ltd., bought close to 50 million shares (23.54% each) in diamond company Trans Hex. This adds up to a dominant stake of just over 47%.
This isn’t entirely new territory for the risk taker. Wiese was in diamond mining in the late 1990s through an investment in Ocean Diamond Mining Holdings (ODM). He sold ODM to Namibian-based diamond miner Namco.
“I used to be in the diamond industry 40 years ago and the opportunity arose to acquire a controlling stake in Trans Hex which is one of the junior diamond mining companies and one I think has potential,” says Wiese.
The cold fact is South Africa’s once thriving diamond industry is suffering atrophy. It has no more than 200 diamond beneficiators remaining from a historical peak of about 4,500 and a decline in investment, according toMining Weekly.
“Rough-diamond prices are too high for manufacturers, who cannot profitably polish goods at such levels. Polished-diamond prices have declined, in turn, reducing demand for diamonds from South African mines, as well as throughout the world,” it says, quoting World Federation of Diamond Bourses president Ernie Blom.
Trans Hex has not been immune. Their 2016 results suffered heavily from a sharp decline in rough diamond prices.
“The diamond market was severely impacted by excess stocks in the polishing industry and a resultant decline in demand for rough diamond. Average prices received for rough thus decline by 23.5% year-on-year. As a result, the Lower Orange River operations, which are earning the end of their reserves, moved into loss overall,” says Bernard van Rooyen, Trans Hex Chairman in the company financials.
Piet Viljoen, Alternate Director at Trans Hex, says its share price has come under pressure but the business has tried to ride the storm.
“The problem creates value in a very lumpy way. It earns a lot of money one year and then makes big losses the next year… so its share price doesn’t seem to go anywhere ever, that’s why it creates the impression that the business is under pressure,” he says.
Viljoen says it helps to have shareholders like Wiese who have vision.
“The shareholder reference can act as a provider of capital when the business needs it, do acquisitions or to fund projects.”
Trans Hex Group incurred a disappointing loss of R100.8 million ($7.3 million) and Viljoen has called it “a difficult year” but Wiese is optimistic.
“It is going well, except the exchange rate is not in favor of diamond exports because the rand is stagnant. With the diamond industry, you are not running a shop where you always know what your sales are going to be,” says Wiese.
Wiese is known for taking risks and smart investments. More than 60% of his wealth is in Shoprite and Steinhoff, while another 30% or so comes from his shares of investment company, Brait. His stock in Tradehold, a real estate firm, accounts for much of the remaining 10%. He has made investments in the United Kingdom (UK) such as clothing retailer New Look and gym chain Virgin Active. He says there is no secret behind the success.
“In this company, we have always had a philosophy, in terms of which we run our group of companies. These are the five pillars as we call it; faith, positive thinking, enthusiasm, compassion and hard work. Hard work is probably important but you’ve got to be a positive person and able to put teams together and motivate them. I am not a person running the business, I play a different role. The good business leaders like Whitey Basson and Markus Jooste are people who can put teams together, motivate them and steer them in the right direction,” he says.
There have been several enormous setbacks like the currency upset in 1985 when the rand lost about 50% of its value in less than a year, Brexit, which badly affected the share price, and great disappointments in people. It is wealth that hasn’t come easy.
“Oh yes, plenty [of bad investments]. I can’t even remember the worst one but there are many adventurous investments that just didn’t work out. I am heavily invested in wine farming and that’s not a very big lucrative business but it gives other pleasures such as the beauty of it…”
“A man’s true wealth is the good he does in the world,” goes the proverb. According to Wiese, success is more than how much money you have, it is about whether you can look at yourself in the mirror and say maybe it’s very small but my contribution made life or the world a slightly better place. Following this mantra, he is helping the poor gain title deeds to their homes. He is a sponsor of the Free Market Foundation, which is working with First National Bank to give people land tenure, and gave more than 100 title deeds to residents of Ngwathe, a municipality in South Africa’s Free State province.
“The Free Market Foundation looked at South Africa and found that there are between seven and 11 million households where the occupants own the structure on the land by they do not own the land, so they launched an initiative cooperating with the local, provincial governments to give people title to their homes. My family decided to get involved in that to make financial contributions in order to help people to acquire the title deeds to their homes,” he says.
“It is an enormously important thing for people to have a sense of ownership. People that are used to owning things do not realize how much it adds to a person’s dignity if he can say ‘this is my home. It may be a modest little home, but it’s my home and I can leave it to my children and be assured they have a roof over their heads.’”
Wiese says positivity rules his life.
“If you are positive about life, you ignore the unfair criticism. A lot of the criticism is totally justified but you don’t focus on either the nice things people say to you or about you too much or equally you don’t concern yourself too much about the bad things people say…”