Inside the vast neoclassical building of Selfridges, along the crowded Oxford Street, in London, Christmas arrives early every year, at the beginning of November. As soon as Halloween ends, the shopping windows are decorated for the holiday season and a flood of people starts pouring in. But this year, the world's number one department store found a bitter surprise under the lightened tree. A real estate earthquake started from Innsbruck, Austria, which threatens to shake half of Europe to its foundations, also reaching the top of the Chrysler Building, the famous skyscraper in Manhattan: from a mountain of 30 billion dollars in debt, an avalanche could trigger the “Lehman Brothers of Europe”.
HAVE AN ISSUE? BETTER THROW A PARTY
There’s one single man behind all this: the mogul René Benko, founder of Signa Group, the biggest retail property owner in Europe, with assets worth as much as 27 billion dollars. Alps are the location of a moonshot that turned into turmoil: during Christmas 2022 champagne flowed under the Christmas lights at the ultra-luxurious hotel Interalpen, in Telfs, high above Tyrol mountains, in western Austria. Boney M, the disco sensation celebrity known for 70s hits "Daddy Cool", entertained Benko’s employees. And a defiant CEO gave a speech: the entrepreneur sought to project an image of strength that promised an even more lucrative future for his sprawling property empire. It could have been a typical corporate Winter Convention if it wasn’t for the rumours that had been going on for months: Benko’s company was allegedly struggling with a huge pile of debt. Where there is a fire, for sure there is a flame, and the end rumours proved to be more than just bad press: reality caught up with the charismatic businessman, who made his first billion before the age of 40. In November 2023, nearly a year on from that party, Signa announced it was urgently restructuring. In a tense BoD meeting, Benko was forced out of his creature by his minority co-investors. Signa is not a household name, but many of its assets are: the aforementioned Chrysler Building in New York, with its gargoyles decorations made famous by Batman movies, and Selfridges. The German equivalent KaDeWe in Berlin, the country's renowned department store, is on the list as well as The Golden Quarter in Vienna, home to luxury shopping destinations.
WHEN WE WERE YOUNG
Young Benko displayed entrepreneurial skills from an early age. He started his first business venture while still a student, showing an aptitude for business. Born in Innsbruck, the city of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in 1977, the son of a local government employee and a kindergarten teacher studied at the Handelsakademie (the Technical Economic Institute). At the age of 17 René gained his first real estate experience in a construction company owned by an acquaintance of his family. He later dropped out of college because his real estate activities caused him to miss too many classes and he was not admitted to high school exams. He had more important and lucrative things to do, although: he started transforming attics into luxury apartments. His first big deal was the profitable purchase and sale of the Lanserhof Wellness Hotel in Innsbruck. He founded Signa Holding in 1999, at the very young age of 22. Initially focused on real estate, he soon gained attention for his aggressive acquisition strategies, swiftly purchasing iconic properties and landmarks across Europe, especially in Austria and Germany. In this way Benko made himself known in the Austrian business circle, and the Viennese entrepreneur Karl Kovarik, owner of the petrol stations chain, invested 25 million euro into Signa's first financial round. He then moved to medical centers in Vienna, while his second big strike was the acquisition of the Kaufhaus shopping center in his native Innsbruck: the building was completely renovated in 2010 by famous architect David Chipperfield and after that, Signa headquarters was moved there. New and luxurious offices were not the priority for the young tycoon: in 2005, he created a company advisory board with leading figures from politics and business. He was intertwining a relevant network of power.
I LOVE SHOPPING
Signa's acquisition of KaDeWe (former KarStardt), one of Europe's largest department stores in Berlin, for over 1 billion euro, brought Benko significant recognition and marked a major milestone for Signa's real estate portfolio. His expansion also extended to media ownership: he bought the German publisher Gruner+Jahr, famous for its science magazine “Focus”. In March 2019, Signa acquired the Chrysler Building, together with RFR, a US holding, for 151 million US dollars. It was Benko's first major investment in the United States. At the same time, the Alto Adige region in northern Italy gave the "green light" for the sale of Bolzano airport: the purchaser was ABD Holding, a newco owned by entrepreneur Josef Gostner (owner of Fri-El, a renewable energy listed on Italian Stock Exchange); Benko and construction group Strabag. The new owners planned a controversial expansion and internationalization of the airport, causing protests and appeals. While building up a retail and real estate empire, Benko found the time to marry twice and father four children: his second wife is the former fashion model Nathalie Sterchele who sparked a scandal years before for an alleged secret liaison with soccer superstar David Beckham. The couple enjoys an estate on Lake Garda, in Italy, and a chalet in the ski resort Lech.
THE COMPANY YOU KEEP
Benko's investors include some of the wealthiest families in Europe: it’s a testament to Benko's skills as a salesman and networker; and to the years in which the group was an irresistible moneymaking machine. The Signa’s shareholder book reads like a Who's Who of European capitalism: among them are the French carmaker Peugeot family, Tetrapak's Rausings, logistics magnate Klaus-Michael Kühne, Roland Berger, founder of the eponymous international management consultancy, Swiss chocolate group Lindt&Sprüngli's chair Ernst Tanner, Austrian industrialist Hans Peter Haselsteiner, owner of Strabag itself, and pet food tycoon Torsten Toeller. Even the heirs of Austrian Formula 1 racing legend Niki Lauda own shares. The scale of a default of Signa could trigger a major disaster in “Corporate Europe” and family capitalism. The company's ownership structure is complex: many Signa debts, including hundreds of millions lent by European banks, including Raiffeisen and Unicredit (via Bank Austria), on a scale that has concerned the European Central Bank, are collateralized directly against individual properties. Benko's foundation is still the majority owner through a network of trusts and holding companies in Austria, Liechtenstein and offshore, that made him the third richest man in Austria, with a 5,5 billion euro wealth according to Forbes. But it has become clear his co-investors are not happy anymore with the enfant prodige of luxury shopping.
SEND IN THE UNDERTAKER?
In his native Austria, Benko is a sort of celebrity and national hero: the 46-year-old billionaire has long been a fixture of the society scene in Vienna, cultivating celebrities and politicians. The former chancellor Sebastian Kurz jokingly nicknamed him "Mr 64 Meters", referring to the yacht in the Adriatic sea they sometimes found themselves invited aboard. One high-profile annual event was his Törggelen — a traditional November time festival celebration from Tyrol that Benko imported to Vienna and turned into a sumptuous society fixture.
But Benko's prominence has also made him a target. While no charges have been brought, he is being investigated as part of a sprawling Austrian probe into government corruption. Signa's Innsbruck headquarters were raided by Austrian police in the past. Public anger has also mounted over Benko's business tactics. Two major European retail chains he bought, Germany's Karstadt and Austria's Kika/Leiner, were placed into bankruptcy in the past year. The empire started crumbling, culminating in his forced stepping down. The man brought to shore up Signa's ailing finances, is the German restructuring expert Arndt Geiwitz, who saved Lufthansa in 2020.
Benko’s demise left behind large unfinished projects, such as the Elbtower in Hamburg, and the Lamarr luxury department store development in Vienna, both of which were launched before the property downturn. It was the media, though, who proved to be the more fatal move for him: in 2018, Benko bought a stake in Austria's biggest newspaper, the tabloid Kronen Zeitung and he made clear he wanted more control. His aggressive stance put him into conflict with the majority owner, Christoph Dichand, who also served as the paper's editor. It came as no surprise, then, the Kronen was the first to reveal Benko was gone from the empire he built. "This is the death knell" headlined the newspaper in Christmas 2023: it’s a carol Charles Dickens would have loved.