Whistleblower

Some years ago a mate of mine was Sales director of an Engineering Company in the Midlands. The Company had grown off the back of supplying ‘gondola’ display racking to supermarkets. A big roll of galvanised steel went into one end of their factory and lots of uprights and shelves came out the other. Supermarkets were expanding like crazy and he’d shaved the margins when bidding for a mega-deal for 10 miles of racking for 40 new stores. He was understandably delighted to be invited to a contract-signing at a certain Supermarket’s head office but when shown into the boardroom found several competitors sitting at the table, all looking very hacked-off. Then in walked the Supermarket Head of Procurement who announced they would each be given an office, a telephone and one hour to reconsider their price. This was not a nice way to be treated. He lost the contract and his Company had too many eggs in one basket so went belly-up a couple of years later. Lesson learnt – the hard way.

Half-year profit forecasts to investors were being overstated by some £250m.

Quite a lot of hard-done-by suppliers may be taking quiet pleasure from Tesco’s problems at the moment – well the ones who can find another customer anyway. Back in September a whistleblower in Tesco’s finance department thought the new Chief Executive, Dave Lewis should be told that half-year profit forecasts to investors were being overstated by some £250m. When this profit warning was announced the institutional shareholders reacted in horror and the share price plunged. If you can’t trust the published accounts of a FTSE 100 Company then who can you trust? An internal enquiry was launched, payments withheld to former executives and others politely asked to step aside. Tesco has now handed the results to the Financial Conduct Authority amidst allegations that a small group of people in Britain’s biggest retailer deliberately misled its auditors to boost the trading accounts.

Tesco also confirmed withholding pay-outs worth millions of pounds to former Chief Executive Philip Clarke and former chief financial officer Laurie Mcilwee. The Serious Fraud Office is taking a keen interest and Tesco could face ‘significant fines’ and claims from investors says Mr Lewis. He is also wondering why he answered that job advertisement.

Screwing your suppliers is standard practice for any supermarket but Tesco seems to have refined the art. The allegation is they credited ‘product supplier discounts’ to an earlier accounting period than when actually received. This is naughty and contrary to the Groceries Supply Code of Practice as well as proper accounting standards. You can get away with it if sales turnover is rising and increased revenue in the next period cloaks it – but not if sales turnover is falling which is what’s happening at Tesco. These ‘discounts’ are demanded by Supermarkets in return for the retailer placing the suppliers product on the best shelf. ‘Eye line is buy line’ and all that – a bit like paying key money to get the best pitch next to your Market entrance.

Tesco’s share of the UK groceries and household goods market share has fallen from over 30% to 28%.

This little accounting irregularity is the icing on the cake for Tesco. Sales have been falling for several quarters largely due to German discounters Aldi and Lidl. Tesco’s share of the UK groceries and household goods market share has fallen from over 30% to 28% and the share price was already on the slide before this announcement. Chiselling £250 million or so out of your suppliers every 3 months is no mean feat but it seems likely someone told the auditors the discounts were already in the bank, not an anticipated receipt. Tesco shares which were nudging £5 a couple of years ago now stand at under £2.

So it looks like our Dave may need to raise cash to pay a hefty fine and reimburse shareholders who bought-in on fraudulent figures. Someone may even do porridge. Dave has now penned a long apology to Tesco Suppliers which looked good in the press and stopped them looking round for other retail outlets. It also softened them up for the next round of supply negotiations which are bound to follow. He might have to sell-off of an asset or two such as Tesco Banking or a juicy overseas operation. Cost-cutting in the UK such as a halt on new store openings had already been implemented by his predecessor Philip Clarke who switched to store refitting with posh coffee shops, restaurants and digital businesses. And falling sales.

Dave Lewis says he is a fan of ‘brand archaeology’ i.e. returning Tesco to its original roots. That sounds like he’ll focus on becoming Britain’s cheapest retailer once more and taking-on Aldi and Lidl. It’s the suppliers I feel sorry for.

Meanwhile the 5-yearly commercial property revaluation used to calculate business rates has been postponed yet again.

The last revaluation was due in 2013 but HM Government postponed it until 2015 claiming it would cause ‘uncertainty for businesses’. It’s now been postponed yet again until 2017 i.e. after the next election and assessments continue to apply based on pre-2010 rental values. The total revenue ‘take’ collected by the Treasury is supposed to remain the same but because many High Street businesses have collapsed thanks to online shopping etc the burden is going to fall on those that remain. The British Retail Consortium has kicked-off big time about the effect on their Supermarket members and the PM has promised a long-overdue review of this archaic system. To do so he’ll have to fight his way past all the HMRC District Valuers. Good luck.

In the meantime as a ‘Small Business’ which occupies only one premises you’ll hopefully remain clear of liability thanks to the Small Business Rates Relief Scheme. But this is due to expire in March 2015. It will be interesting to see if Chancellor George Osborne extends that to 2017. He’s bound to – isn’t he?

Happy Christmas!

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