As of 2014, British supermarket chain Tesco held approximately 29 percent of Britain’s grocery market, with more than 3,500 stores and over 310,000 employees. Tesco was Britain’s largest grocery chain and the third-largest retailer by sales in the world. But with shifts in the industry, changes in company management, and growing competition from rivals and discount chains, Tesco saw a decline in sales. From 2013 to 2014, the company saw its stock price fall by more than 50 percent. By October 2014, chairman Richard Broadbent announced his resignation.
Broadbent’s resignation came in the wake of an internal investigation into the company’s profit reporting. Tesco reported that it had overstated its profits by £263 million (approximately $423 million at the time), of which £118 million related to reports from the first half of 2014 and £145 million from the previous two years. The company stated that the discrepancy came from booking income from suppliers too quickly. Several other executives were asked to step aside, and the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) in Britain soon launched a criminal investigation into accounting irregularities. Britain’s financial regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, also began an investigation into company profits.
Tesco’s finance director Carl Rogberg, managing director Chris Bush, and food commercial director John Scouler were charged with fraud by abuse of power and false accounting. According to prosecutor Sasha Wass, the three executives “encouraged the manipulation of profits and indeed pressurised others working under their control to misconduct themselves in such a way that the stock market was ultimately misled.” Wass continued, “Each of these three defendants used their managerial authority and actively encouraged those working beneath them to falsify the figures.”
Amit Soni, a whistleblower in the case and senior accountant at Tesco, said he alerted senior management to a profits misstatement in 2014. He reported that accounting teams were told to “pull forward” future income from suppliers by placing it on the books in advance of actually earning the money. This created a growing gap between budgets and the company’s actual performance. He said his team was “falling apart” under pressure, stating, “It was to the point that even [my team] could see that the future was not looking any better.”
In 2017, Tesco reached an agreement with the SFO to avoid criminal charges and instead enter a prosecution agreement and pay a penalty of £129 million (approximately $162 million at the time). In 2018, Rogberg suffered a heart attack, and the court prosecuting him, Bush, and Scouler chose to abandon the case. The SFO has left the option open to pursue a re-trial.
In response to the company’s agreement with the SFO, Tesco chief executive Dave Lewis stated, “Over the last two and a half years, we have fully cooperated with this investigation into historic accounting practices, while at the same time fundamentally transforming our business. We sincerely regret the issues which occurred in 2014 and we are committed to doing everything we can to continue to restore trust in our business and brand.”