Sainsbury's Mike Coupe and the risks of doing business abroad (or not)

An Egyptian court convicted the Sainsbury's boss in absentia over an alleged embezzlement it says he committed in the country. Unsurprisingly, he's appealing.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 10 Jun 2015

Taking a successful business abroad is never likely to be without risks. Just pop along to Cheshunt (while you still can) and ask Tesco about its doomed American adventure if you want a taste of what can go wrong.

Normally, you’d expect the typical problems faced by any start-up, regardless of funding – no one knows the brand and the competition’s entrenched – exacerbated by a lack of local cultural and market knowledge.

What you wouldn’t expect is to find yourself on the wrong end of an extraordinary court case relating to something that may or may not have happened when you didn’t actually work for the company, years after it left the market. This is the unfortunate situation Sainsbury’s boss Mike Coupe is in. As if he didn’t have enough on his plate...

In September, an Egyptian court sentenced Coupe to two years in prison for embezzlement, claiming he ‘seized cheques’ from Amr El Nasharty, Sainsbury’s erstwhile business partner in the country. El Nasharty sought compensation from Sainsbury’s, saying it left him with significant tax liabilities when it wound up their joint venture in the country in 2001.

For its part, Sainsbury’s doesn’t seem to have a very high opinion of El Nasharty’s cheques, saying that the ones he used to buy Sainsbury’s out of the business in the first place bounced. As for Coupe, the firm strongly denied he seized anything.

‘Mike Coupe was not employed by Sainsbury's at the time of the original business deal in 2001 and has never met the complainant,’ the company said in a statement. ‘Mr El Nasharty is now claiming that Mike was in Egypt on 15 July 2014 and seized these cheques, which is an impossibility. Mike Coupe was in London carrying out his normal duties that day.’

Alongside all the other people Coupe would have met carrying out those duties, he apparently also saw ITV News Business Editor Joel Hills for lunch that day. Somehow, it seems unlikely that he slipped off to Egypt for some seizing before coming back in time for tea.

Sainsbury’s is appealing, and said the case wouldn’t impact its finances. Presumably Coupe won’t be sunning himself in Sharm El Sheikh any time soon, but otherwise it’s unlikely to affect him too much either. One can hardly expect an extradition warrant to be forthcoming.

Still, it’s a salutary lesson, not least to Egypt. Developing countries that try to lock up respected leaders of major corporations don’t tend to do too well on the inward investment front.

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