GEORGE NEWS - A battle over computer equipment, intellectual property and alleged interference with information technology (IT) systems has ensued between Steinhoff Africa Retail (Star) and former managers of Tekkie Town last week when the two opposing sides launched urgent interdict applications against one another.
This follows the mass walkout of about 100 employees after the resignation of most of the Tekkie Town management on 26 June.
In the first application, on Monday 2 July, the George Magistrate's Court ordered a Star business intelligence developer, Werner de Bruin, to return computer equipment that belongs to the owner of the Tekkie Town head-office, Nunanda Property Investment, whose directors are (Tekkie Town founder) Braam van Huyssteen and (former Tekkie Town CEO) Bernard Mostert.
This was followed, on Friday 5 July, by a temporary Western Cape High Court interdict against Van Huyssteen, Mostert, and two former Tekkie Town IT managers, Willem Wait (chief information officer) and Anton Roetz, to refrain from accessing and interfering with the Tekkie Town IT system at its head office or any of its stores. They were also interdicted from making use of any data, intellectual property, cloned hard drives or copies of Tekkie Town staff e-mail inboxes.
The court further ordered that such information or hardware with Tekkie Town data in their possession be delivered to Star. The respondents were given till 16 July to give reasons as to why a final order should not be made.
Records of cellphone conversations
In their application, Star submitted records of cellphone conversations that preceded the employee exit revealing that discussions took place about the purchase of laptops and hard drives, and ways in which e-mail records would be cloned.
An affidavit by De Bruin, who also walked out but later returned to Star, says at a meeting on 18 June with management at the Tekkie Town premises most of the senior members resigned, including himself.
All the key management people were phoned.
"Their salaries were guaranteed if they resigned. It felt like a test of our loyalty; if we were loyal we would be taken care of."
On that same day, instruction was allegedly given to purchase hard drives to make backups of mainframe databases in Tekkie Town, to be taken off site. They started doing this over the next few days, while at least two attempts were made to conclude a deal to buy back Tekkie Town.
Mostert had meetings with Star CEO Leon Lourens and Star chairman Jayendra Naidoo about the sale, which would possibly involve the entire Speciality Group that includes Dunns, John Craig, Shoe City and Refinery. The former Tekkie Town management offered R2-billion, but it fell too far short of Star's asking price of R3,8-billion. Finally, on 24 June, "the mass plans to resign started".
'Interference with point of sales planned'
De Bruin alleges that he was ordered by somebody from the breakaway group to "prep the server" so that he would be able to interfere with the points-of-sale of the
380 stores nationwide to prevent operators from logging in and making sales. This plan was not executed before he bailed out on 1 July and returned to Star.
In another sworn statement, a Star IT executive sent to Tekkie Town to secure its system, confirmed that attempts had been made to access the system. Changes had been made to a device to be be used to gain access to the Tekkie Town stores.
Star CEO Leon Lourens in a Sens update said, "It is regrettable that we have had to take such legal action.We remain focused on the continued success of Star and Tekkie Town with our determined and committed team and will focus on continued growth. We will continue to use the necessary legal process available to protect our business."
Mostert issued a media statement after they succeeded with the court interdict to have computer equipment returned that was at De Bruin's home. He said that it was returned to Nunanda by the sheriff of George on 3 July, and the rest to Nunanda's legal representatives by senior Star executives two days later.
"We believe the seizure of this computer equipment was designed to disrupt the work of Nunanda which serves several other companies, including AJVH Holdings, which is currently involved in several legal actions against Steinhoff Africa Retail."
According to Mostert's sworn statement in the court application papers, Wait had gone to De Bruin's house in George on 29 and
30 June to inspect the equipment (bought and delivered on 28 June to De Bruin's house, as ordered by Mostert). When Wait returned on 1 July, he was denied access to the equipment and ordered off the premises by a security guard placed there by Star. De Bruin did not respond to numerous phone calls and messages. That was when a court order was sought. Mostert alleged that De Bruin was bribed by Star to return to them with two years' salary on top of his usual monthly payment, but Star denies this.
Mostert did not want to comment on the allegations of espionage and interference with Star's systems. "We cannot comment before we have made our submission to the court in response to their allegations."
Van Huyssteen was not available for comment.
Star chairman Jayendra Naidoo's comments
Star Chairman Jayendra Naidoo told the George Herald that the company is sympathetic towards those employees who have resigned from Star and Tekkie Town and have nothing to do with the "disappointing and illegal" conduct by certain leaders and other ex-employees.
He said Werner de Bruin's good conscience stopped him from implementing the damaging steps that were being planned. "We will protect him and anybody in a similar position."
He said Star was functioning well after the "destabalising behaviour" and mass exit. "We are replacing those who resigned. We are sympathetic towards those who resigned and our door is open to them to come back, but they must make up their minds sooner rather than later."
He did not want to comment on whether any computer equipment had been returned to Nunanda Property Investment. He said it was possible that residual property had been left behind by the employees who exited. "If anyone else's equipment is in Star we believe that it should go to them. We will never hold anyone else's property."
'Ons bring jou die nuutste George, Tuinroete nuus'