Court: Royal Ahold Scandal Was CFO’s Fault

The food giant's finance chief ignored serious weaknesses at a U.S. company he acquired to meet growth targets, a Dutch court charges.
Ronald Fink and Stephen TaubMarch 31, 2006

The former CFO of Royal Ahold was singled out by a Dutch enterprise court as bearing most of the blame for the accounting scandal that rocked the global food giant three years ago, according to the Associated Press.

However, while the 15-month investigation heavily criticized Michiel Meurs, the former finance executive, it also blamed former chief executive Cees van der Hoeven for his role as “sparring partner” for Meurs, the wire service reported.

According to the AP, the three-member court said Ahold knew about weak internal controls within its U.S. Foodservice subsidiary before it was acquired in 2000, and yet failed to act even after warnings of accounting weaknesses.

The panel’s report accused Ahold’s management of overlooking internal controls because it was heavily concerned with achieving double-digit growth targets, according to the published report.

That flies in the face of what Meurs told CFO magazine some five years ago. “We only buy good companies,” he said in an interview published in April 2001. “A shareholder never has to be worried about being diluted in the case of an Ahold acquisition.”

At the time, Ahold was doing a lot of acquiring. Beginning in 1995, the Dutch company spent some $19 billion on purchases during a six-year period. In the interview with CFO, and at a conference sponsored in 2002 by CFO Europe, Meurs emphasized the careful and thorough discipline that Ahold’s management exercised when evaluating and integrating business partners. “Ahold knows precisely both who and what it wants to acquire,” Meurs boasted at the conference. “Ahold is both explicit and clear on its expectations of its targets.”

He also said the company continually discussed its expectations with a target company’s management. As he put it, Ahold made a practice of “continuous top-level involvement.”

In 2003, Ahold restated its earnings by $1 billion for the three years ended 2002, and last December paid $1 billion to settle a class-action lawsuit with shareholders.

Meurs, Van der Hoeven, and two other former Ahold executives are targets of a separate civil suit in Amsterdam for fraud, according to the AP.

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