The battle of Europe’s wealthiest billionaires over France’s debt laden supermarket chain

Daniel Kretinsky and Xavier Niel to face off over the grocery empire Casino

A mysterious investor, nicknamed “the Czech sphinx”, is set to face off with a French billionaire turned spy in the battle for control of one the largest supermarkets in the country.

Daniel Kretinsky will face Xavier Niel for the grocery empire Casino, which is laden with debt.

Mr Kretinsky, Sainsbury’s 2nd-largest investor, has submitted a €1.8bn bid (£1.5bn).

In the meantime, Mr Niel , the tech entrepreneur who is behind Free Mobile, has joined forces to create a competing offer with Matthieu Pigues and retail entrepreneur Moez Alexandre Zouari. The competition between the two tycoons who own Le Monde, the French newspaper jointly, threatens to cause a rift.

The newspaper is owned by Mr Kretinsky, Noveau Monde, and Mr Niel, NJJ Presse. Each owns 26.7pc.

Mr Niel, who is a tax evader convicted of a crime, claims to have spied for France’s Security Agency on the former President Francois Mitterrand, and the car company Renault, in the 1980s.

After acquiring power stations in the Czech Republic after the fall of iron curtain, Mr Kretinsky made his first money.

Mr Kretinsky has now a 10pc stake at Sainsbury’s, and a 26pc shareholding at Royal Mail. This makes him the largest investor in FTSE 100 companies.

According to reports, the Czech investor’s company is offering EUR1.35bn cash along with a group that will convert debt into equity as part of a deal valued at EUR1.8bn. A Kretinsky spokesman declined to comment.

In a press release, the group stated that the consortium, which includes Mr. Niel, offers €900m in equity, but is supported by secured creditors who owe EUR1.5bn. The group also gains from the fact that Mr Zouari is already in charge of many franchised Casino stores.

Shares of Casino, France’s sixth largest food retailer, have dropped sharply over the last few weeks. The company’s bosses had to admit that investors were going to be “massively diluted” under a plan for debt reduction, reducing their stakes dramatically.

Casino is controlled by Jean-Charles Naouri. He is an Algerian-born businessman whose Rallye investment company has held control of Casino in the early 1990s.

The businessman will now be forced to leave the board of Casino as approximately €5bn in debt has been converted into shares capital.

The business has informed its potential suitors that at least €900m in new equity must be invested. The Casino board will be evaluating the bids and announcing next steps Wednesday evening.

In 2019, Mr Kretinsky’s bid to take control of German wholesaler Metro was rejected by its board due to the fact that it would burden the company with too much debt. He still holds a 40% stake in Metro.

In 2020, Mr Niel admitted that he had hack into mobile phones in France including those of President Mitterrand.

He claimed that he “wasn’t in the secret service”, but instead referred to himself as “sort of an honorary agent”.

Mr Niel’s fortune was made by breaking open France’s closed telecoms networks. Iliad is the group that he founded and owns the Free Brand. Its value on the Paris Stock Exchange is approximately €11bn.

Before he began his telecoms career, Mr Niel was an online adult service provider on Minitel, the internet’s precursor. In 2004, he was fined €250,000 for tax evasion and sentenced to two years of suspended imprisonment. He was arrested and found not guilty of profiting from the prostitution.

M. Niel is partnered by Delphine Arnault who is the CEO and Chairman of luxury brand Dior, and the daughter of Bernard Arnault – the founder of LVMH, and one of richest men in the world.

Casino’s financial state has been a mess for a long time. However, it was only recently that the situation became apparent. Credit rating agencies gave the supermarket an “investment grade”, indicating that the debt levels are manageable given the size of the business.

Since 2018, Mr Naouri is selling assets to reduce a large debt load, while Rallye and other companies that he owns are placed under creditor protection.

Hedge funds are betting against Casino, putting further downward pressure on its share price.

Casino’s battle for the billionaires may be disrupted by other players.

According to reports, the Mulliez family who owns Auchan, Decathlon and Leroy Merlin, a DIY chain, approached Mr Kretinsky with the intention of muscling into his bid.

Le Monde reported that Carrefour, France’s second largest chain after E.Leclerc has analysed Monoprix’s stores.

Last year, Casino had a revenue of €33.6bn. It employs more than 200,000 people worldwide, including 50,000 in France.