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Billionaire industrialists take on Nakumatt in bad debt row

From left, Nakumatt MD Atul Shah, Haco chairman Chris Kirubi, Brookside boss Muhoho Kenyatta and Junction Mall director Andrew Ndegwa. PHOTOS | FILE | NMG
From left, Nakumatt MD Atul Shah, Haco chairman Chris Kirubi, Brookside boss Muhoho Kenyatta and Junction Mall director Andrew Ndegwa. PHOTOS | FILE | NMG  

Last week’s public spat between the Ndegwa family and troubled retail chain Nakumatt over the occupancy of Nairobi’s Junction Mall has exposed the intensity of a bad debts war the supermarket is fighting against wealthy industrialists it owes billions of shillings.

The Ndegwas, who are successors of former Central Bank of Kenya governor Philip Ndegwa, on Saturday night ejected Nakumatt from the Junction Mall where it holds a majority stake, citing failure by the retailer to pay the tens of millions shillings it owes in rent arrears.

The contractual disputes, which have been boiling under for a year, finally burst to the surface, dragging the reclusive Ndegwa family into the limelight they have avoided for years despite having their footprints all over the national economy.

“We have been having discussions with Nakumatt for about a year now. At some point, they owed us over Sh100 million in rent arrears but that now stands at between Sh50 million and Sh75 million,” a source close to the Ndegwa family told the Business Daily.

“If an anchor tenant at a shopping mall is not trading well, they negatively impact other tenants.”

Nakumatt on Monday secured a court injunction, allowing it to continue operating in the 13-year-old, 155-tenant shopping complex, which the Ndegwas, and at least two other shareholders, built with financing from the private equity firm Actis.

The battle for the Junction Mall is, however, just one of the many Nakumatt, which is carrying heavy and expensive debt, is fighting.

Want debts settled

A number of wealthy industrialists have formed a beeline to the retailer’s empty treasury seeking settlement of their debts worth billions of shillings.

Court documents show that the list of Nakumatt’s prominent creditors includes the Kenyatta family (Brookside Dairies), Chris Kirubi (Haco Industries), Kimani Rugendo (Kevian Kenya) and Linus Gitahi (Tropikal Brands).

Brookside, whose executive chairman is Muhoho Kenyatta, is owed Sh457 million. Mr Kirubi is claiming Sh71.8 million, Mr Rugendo (of the Pick ‘N’ Peel brand) Sh90.2 million while Mr Gitahi is seeking to recover Sh56.3 million from the retail chain.

“Nakumatt’s problems have impacted Haco too much. My goods are not on their shelves so where is my money? That is my only question,” Mr Kirubi, the Haco chairman, said in an interview.

“We have had several meetings with them to discuss this matter. Nothing changed so we stopped supplying them three months ago.”

John Gethi, the Brookside general manager in charge of milk procurement, said the business has had “back and forth” meetings with the Nakumatt’s management but the “negotiations have not yielded much.”

Mr Gethi said the financial stalemate has “significantly affected Brookside’s cash flows”, forcing it to cut supply ties with Nakumatt a month ago.

Mr Gitahi, the Tropikal chairman and former chief executive of the Nation Media Group #ticker:NMG, spoke of similar and numerous boardroom talks that yielded little, forcing the company to go to court.

“We have watched the company deteriorate for about a year now. Following negotiations, they started issuing us postdated cheques which at some point started bouncing,” said Mr Gitahi.

“We continued supplying them even in these circumstances because they were a major retailer.”

Nakumatt’s battle with the Ndegwa family extends further than the Junction Mall rent arrears. NIC Bank #ticker:NIC, where the family owns a 25 per cent stake, is seeking Sh42 million from Nakumatt.

NIC chairman James Ndegwa and his brother Andrew Ndegwa (a director of the Junction Mall) each own a 6.5 per cent stake in the lender valued at Sh1.6 billion apiece.

The Ndegwa family has interests in insurance, agriculture, manufacturing and real estate development and management.

Knight Frank, the property managing firm in which the family holds a minority stake, manages 10 shopping malls across the country.

Four of them — Junction Mall, Ridgeways (Kiambu Road), Oasis Mall (Malindi) and Lungalunga Square (Industrial Area, Nairobi) – have Nakumatt as its anchor tenant.

Knight Frank is facing similar issues with the retailer at these other locations.

The owner of Oasis Mall, for instance, is claiming Sh20.1 million in rent arrears and is in the list of 50 creditors seeking to have Nakumatt wound up alongside Brookside, Kevian, Tropikal, Haco and others.

Nakumatt’s woes have been piling over the past year, but hit a crescendo in March when an anticipated six-week phased injection of Sh7.7 billion from an unnamed private equity fund aborted.

This precipitated widespread product stockouts, closure of some branches, failure to pay employees and numerous court battles with its creditors – suppliers and landlords – across the region.

The retailer is in talks with Tuskys Supermarkets to enter into a merger which will see the two businesses operate under one management with the owner-families remaining the principal shareholders.

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