February 21, 2019 / 7:47 AM / a year ago

SAfrica's Woolworths axes dividend from Australian ops to cut debt

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa’s Woolworths Holdings will not pay dividends from its Australian businesses for two years in order to reduce debt levels there, its chief executive said on Thursday after the retailer reported a 2.9 percent drop in half-year earnings.

Shoppers leave a Woolworths store at a shopping centre in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg, file. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Woolworths, which sells clothes, food, beauty products and homeware, said it would cut its group interim dividend to 92 cents per share, down 15.2 percent from a year earlier.

“We’re taking a really prudent decision in Australia,” group CEO Ian Moir told the company’s half-year results presentation. “We want to get our debt levels down, we want to half the debt levels in Australia.”

The Australian businesses, which comprise David Jones and Country Road Group, have debt of just over 400 million Australian dollars ($284 million) and Woolworths wants to bring that down to about 200 million, Moir said.

“For where the market is, it’s the right thing to do.”

Woolworths paid a big premium to bulk up in Australia via David Jones as part of Moir’s ambitions to turn the firm into a leading southern hemisphere retailer, but has faced delays in redeveloping the business.

In 2018 the firm booked an impairment charge of 6.9 billion rand ($492 million) against the value of David Jones as a result of the cyclical downturn and structural changes that have hurt performance across the Australian retail sector.

Woolworths said headline earnings per share (HEPS) fell to 200.4 cents in the 26 weeks ended Dec. 23, from 206.3 cents a year earlier. HEPS is the most widely watched profit gauge in South Africa and strips out certain one-off items.

($1 = 14.0372 rand)

($1 = 1.4063 Australian dollars)

Reporting by Nqobile Dludla; Editing by Sherry Jacob-Phillips and David Holmes

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