Christo Wiese
Billionaire businessman Christo Wiese has just acquired British fashion chain New Look Getty

A South African billionaire who already owns Virgin Active and 20% of supermarket chain Iceland has now acquired fashion chain New Look. Not content with just those three UK investments, Christo Wiese also plans to launch a new discount fashion chain this summer.

Who is the man investing billions into the British high street?

Wiese is worth almost $7bn (£4.4bn, €6.1bn) according to Forbes, making him South Africa's third richest man. The 73-year-old started out as a lawyer but in 1979 moved into the world of retail by acquiring Shoprite, a chain of eight supermarkets, growing it through a series of acquisitions into Africa's biggest food retailer today. He also controls Pepkor, a holding company that owns several retailers in South Africa and Australia.


His first foray into UK retail came in 2012 when he picked up a 20% stake in Iceland as part of the supermarket's restructuring. And then in 2014, through Pepkor UK, he decided to launch a new discount clothing chain, dubbed Pep & Co, in conjunction with former Asda chief executive Andy Bond. It initially plans to open 50 stores by the end of this summer.

In April 2015, Wiese's investment firm Brait, the vehicle through which the South African conducted the New Look deal, snapped up the Virgin Active gym chain for £682m.

Global outlook

While the UK does appear to be important for the magnate, it is perhaps the global reach of the brands that Wiese is interested in.

The chief executive of Brait, John Gnodde, said New Look has "the potential to grow rapidly in a number of geographic markets including China". The retailer has 800 stores spanning 21 countries.

As well as being one of the biggest gym operators in the UK, Virgin Active also has a presence in Italy, Spain, Australia, Singapore and Wiese's native South Africa.

New Look

The retailer has a chequered financial past. Private equity firms Apax and Permira bought the company in 2004 for £700m and saddled it with £1.1bn of debt. During a torrid time for the high street, New Look's trading performance deteriorated and it was forced to refinance in 2013.

Although the firm's performance improved dramatically when the duo drafted in New Look founder Tom Singh to lead a turnaround, the firm is still indebted. Nick Bubb, an independent retail analyst, believes that the South African may have his work cut out making a success of the company.

"Whether New Look's recent revival can be sustained is another matter, given the surplus capacity in the UK fast fashion market, and the new competition coming in the form of Christo Wiese's own new UK discount fashion venture, Pep & Co," he said.

Tax and philanthropy

In 2012 Wiese was reportedly slapped with a £100m tax bill from the South African Revenue Service. However, he has since settled the matter privately.

In April, the tycoon sponsored title deeds for 200 black families in South Africa as part of a land reform initiative. The initiative gives families rights to land they live on but do not own under apartheid-era laws.