Internal documents seen by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age show suppliers across both the university textbook store and the science retailer were last week owed $12.6 million, of which $8.8 million was owed for stock delivered and services rendered at least 90 days prior.
One supplier, textbook publisher John Wiley & Sons, was owed more than $1 million, and 26 suppliers were owed more than $100,000 each.
The University of Western Australia and the Sydney University Sport and Fitness Centre were owed six figures, as were Australia Post and wholesale toys giant Independence Studios.
Some suppliers said there had been payment issues since the Co-op bought Curious Planet – founded as Australian Geographic by Dick Smith in 1992 – from Myer Family Investments three years ago.
“There was this confidence we were going to get paid [when the Myer family owned Australian Geographic] … and then when Co-op took over we never ever, not once, got paid to terms,” said one supplier, who declined to be named over fears the company would not pay him.
Most suppliers contacted by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age said 30- and 60-day payment terms were most common.
The Co-op’s head office, according to some suppliers, has said it will pay the debts with revenue from a Christmas retail bump, and several suppliers have been placed on payment plans to assuage concerns.
In response to detailed questions about the financial position of the company, a spokesman for the board of the Co-op said: “We are trading within the Corporations Act. We don’t comment on confidential information. The specific questions provided are considered as commercially confidential.”
The spokesman said a board meeting was held on Saturday, a day after the company provided comment, but he declined to say what happened at the meeting.
Started in 1958 by students, the Co-op Bookshop offered cheap textbooks in exchange for membership. At its peak it had a presence on almost every Australian university campus.
But more than two-dozen stores have closed since 2015 as frustration grew in academic circles over poor service and online booksellers attracted more students.
On November 22 the last Co-op store at La Trobe will stop trading, leaving it with the Australian National University, the University of Queensland and University of Technology Sydney as universities that no longer have a Co-op on campus.
A La Trobe University spokeswoman said: “Business decisions are a matter for the Co-op Bookshop to comment on.”
A major supplier who feared his six-figure outstanding payment would never be paid, until a portion was invoiced last week, said: “I’m less worried than last week but still nervous. There’s still a nervousness. It’s ‘wait and see’, I guess.”
Several suppliers have refused to send stock until debts are paid.
Unlike the Co-op’s other suppliers, Jacaru Australia, a hat seller, does not appear to have trouble getting paid. It has received more than $857,000 in payments from the Co-op this year.
Curious Planet now sells dozens of the company’s woollen and leather hats on its website, along with wallets, beer coolers and a dog coat, which is listed as out of stock.
Through a private company called Gathor, registered to his home address in Sydney’s north shore, the Co-op’s chief executive Mr Wichtendahl is the majority owner of Jacaru, with 55 per cent of its shares.
The first payment of more than $63,000 from the Co-op to Jacaru is recorded as being transferred on April 18 this year, just a day before ASIC documents show Mr Wichtendahl became one of Jacaru’s directors.
And while the Co-op has transferred more than $857,000 to Jacaru, as of last week it had received only about $315,000 in stock in return over the same period. Like many of the Co-op’s suppliers, Jacaru is on 30-day payment terms, meaning the Co-op has 30 days to pay for goods after it receives them, yet the company has prepaid for far more goods than it has received.
A spokesman for the board, on behalf of Mr Wichtendahl, reiterated he would not comment on “commercially confidential” matters when asked detailed questions about Jacaru.
A Curious period: three names in a month
The Co-op faced a challenging series of events over the past two months as it lost the rights to use the Australian Geographic brand.
In 2017 the Co-op said the Australian Geographic “trademark licence and distribution agreements” were worth $6,278,000 in goodwill to the company.
But last month the Co-op lost the rights to use the name after it was late paying fees, a source close to the transaction said.
A spokeswoman for Australian Geographic magazine, which owns the famous name, said the agreement was terminated because the two companies “were not very well aligned and we wanted to control the brand”.
The Co-op first changed the stores’ name to My Geographic, which the magazine believed was misleadingly similar to Australian Geographic.
After an exchange of legal letters, the Co-op rebranded the stores again to Curious Planet.
Nick is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Max is a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.