Solomon Lew is a canny, tough and extremely wealthy rag trader with a long memory and legendary patience. Woolworths Holdings is South Africa’s biggest retailer. It’s game on in the battle of these titans.
Australia’s iconic department store group David Jones is caught in the crossfire.
Lew has now dropped his camouflage and come out to the public on Monday declaring that he has personally acquired around 10 per cent of David Jones for more than $200 million.
Even for the Melbourne-based billionaire retailer it’s expensive firepower to settle a 17-year cold war with Woolworths.
Lew clearly wants Woolworths to know he is serious about using his stake to stymie its $2.2 billion takeover bid for David Jones.
But Lew doesn’t necessarily want to buy David Jones – it’s likely he wants Woolworths to buy his 11.8 per cent stake in Country Road.
Lew’s stake has been stranded since he refused to accept Woolworths’ takeover of Country Road 17 long years ago.
And for all these years the South Africans have declined to mop up Lew’s stake, preferring to leave him hanging.
Lew has had a long time to fantasise about this revenge. He now has the leverage and wants to extract a good price.
He knows Woolworths, which owns about 86 per cent of Country Road, is the only possible buyer.
Thus Lew is seemingly attempting to negotiate a hostage swap: Woolworths buys the Country Road parcel of shares from Lew who, in return, will not block its takeover of David Jones.
In theory Lew doesn’t have a large enough stake in David Jones to block the bid, which needs 75 per cent of shares to vote in favour at a stake-holder meeting on June 30.
But in a practical sense he had to get a large enough stake to let Woolworths know that he wasn’t bluffing.
And he is sure to now have Woolworths’ full attention. So maybe 10 per cent is all he needs to convince Woolworths that he is prepared to wade back into the market and buy more if he needs to.
The ball is now squarely back in Woolworths’ court.
And the odds are firming that the South Africans could cave in to the wily Melbourne-based billionaire rag trader.
It would cost about $155 million to buy out Lew’s stake in Country Road based on its current trading price, but he will undoubtedly be looking for a premium, so it will be more.
Such a move would leave Woolworths shareholders asking chief executive Ian Moir why they should pay Lew’s ransom, which only adds to the cost of buying David Jones.
Indeed, some of Woolworths’ largest shareholders are already very unhappy at the prospect and making their feelings known to management.
The equally intriguing question is what has been going on behind the scenes between the two warring parties. It has been said that their advisers have held discussions but that no ultimatums were put to Woolworths.
That’s a rather hard line to swallow.
It makes more sense for Lew to have approached Woolworths with a deal and been rebuffed before he started buying David Jones stock.
It stands to reason that Lew was then forced to wade into the David Jones shares in order to apply a blowtorch to Moir.
One thing is for certain. The market is completely uninformed about what is happening. Will Moir call Lew’s bluff and risk losing David Jones?
If this is a real possibility David Jones shares should be falling.
If Moir is going to capitulate then Country Road is a screaming buy – although given most of the shares are held by Woolworths or Lew it would be hard to get set.