By Matthias Inverardi, Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich and Tom Sims
VIENNA/DUESSELDORF/FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Rene Benko, one of Europe’s most prominent property tycoons, on Wednesday relinquished the chairmanship of Signa Holding, the real estate empire he founded, amid an investor revolt and dimming prospects for the sector.
The Austrian entrepreneur – owner of New York’s Chrysler Building and Britain’s Selfridges department store – has been a major figure in Europe’s property industry for more than two decades.
Signa’s troubles have come to symbolise the repercussions of a surge in interest rates on companies that have borrowed heavily to grow. The company didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The following are the key protagonists and events in the saga:
HOW DID IT ALL BEGIN?
Born in 1977 in Innsbruck, Rene Benko dropped out of school and began by turning attics into apartments.
In 2000, he founded Immofina, which later became Signa, and got a big boost with investment from Austrian gas station heir Karl Kovarik.
In 2003, Benko, tried to attract investors to Signa with promises on his website: “You can now earn money by doing nothing” and: “It was never so boring to get rich”.
WHAT IS SIGNA TODAY?
The group has holdings of 27 billion euros ($28.8 billion) and 25 billion euros in development. Its real-estate division operates in Austria, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and Switzerland.
Big purchases included the corporate headquarters in 2010 of Deutsche Boerse, the German stock exchange operator, which it has since sold.
In 2011, Signa bought the storied KaDeWe department store in Berlin as part of a retail portfolio for 1.1 billion euros.
Benko’s group also owns Kaufhof and Karstadt, German retailers that have been struggling as shoppers go online.
WHAT’S THE BACKDROP?
For years, the property sector in Germany and elsewhere in Europe boomed as interest rates were low and demand strong.
Now a sharp rise in rates and building costs has put an end to the run, tipping developers into insolvency as bank financing dries up, deals freeze and prices fall.
The turmoil comes amid the biggest property crisis in decades in Germany, Signa’s most important market, and where within the span of a week Signa’s sports retailer filed for insolvency and construction on a skyscraper was halted.
WHAT ARE SOME SIGNS OF TROUBLE AT SIGNA?
Construction of one of Germany’s tallest buildings in Hamburg has halted midway after Signa stopped paying its builder, Reuters reported last week.
Days earlier, Signa Sports United and a number of subsidiaries filed for insolvency.
WHAT DO CREDIT RATINGS AGENCIES SAY?
Fitch this week downgraded one of Signa’s divisions, Signa Development, to junk.
“Other Signa group entities have ceased projects and have financing difficulties due to the changes in the interest rate environment, bank funding and valuations,” Fitch said.
“Unpaid suppliers and bank funding providers to other Signa entities may cross-contaminate and disrupt Signa Development’s projects and funding,” it added.
The price of a 2026 Signa Development bond has plummeted over the past two weeks.
WHO ARE TOP SIGNA INVESTORS?
Benko will remain the largest shareholder.
Hans Peter Haselsteiner, the founder of Austrian construction firm Strabag, is a major shareholder, according to a filing, and German pet retailer Torsten Toeller is too, according to his family office.
Ernst Tanner, the chair of Swiss chocolate company Lindt & Spruengli, has been a big investor but didn’t immediately respond to a request about the current status of any holding.
WHO ARE OTHER FINANCIAL BACKERS?
A 76-page internal presentation seen by Reuters listed nearly 40 lenders and insurance companies as “investors and financing partners”. It is undated but contains data from 2019.
They included Allianz, Munich Re’s Ergo insurance, BNP Paribas, Austrian banks including RBI, and some German savings banks. Allianz and Ergo declined to comment, RBI said its commercial real estate loans were “very well collateralised”, while the others didn’t respond.
In Germany, Deutsche Bank was joint bookrunner for a Signa bond sold in 2021, and Commerzbank’s real estate last year became a co-investor in Signa’s Hamburg skyscraper. Deutsche Bank declined to comment and Commerz Real said its investment was relatively small.
German regulator BaFin and the European Central Bank (ECB)have been asking banks to detail their exposure to Signa, a person with knowledge of the matter said, confirming press reports.
The ECB didn’t comment on Signa and instead referred to a letter on Tuesday by chief supervisor Andrea Enria to a German lawmaker about “concerns” on real estate lending.
WHO IS THE NEW CHAIR?
Arndt Geiwitz, a restructuring expert best known for his role in the insolvency proceedings of Galeria Kaufhof-Karstadt department stores and drug store chain Schlecker.
($1 = 0.9366 euros)
(Writing by Tom Sims; Editing by Mark Potter)