The Austrian Entrepreneur’s journey from attic expansions to a multi-industry empire is nothing short of astonishing. In the world of high-stakes finance, René Benko, the 45-year-old mastermind behind Signa Holding, boasts an estimated fortune of 4.9 billion euros, as reported by “Trend” magazine.
His rags-to-riches story began with his first million in Schilling at the tender age of 20, and by 40, he had skyrocketed to billionaire status in euros, securing his place as the sixth wealthiest Austrian. However, his path to success is now clouded by serious allegations from an old acquaintance, Thomas Schmid, who has accused him of bribery in connection with a Signa tax audit. Benko has yet to issue a statement, but the presumption of innocence remains.
Born in Innsbruck in 1977 to a municipal worker and a kindergarten teacher, Benko’s early fascination with real estate led him to drop out of high school before graduation, choosing instead to dedicate himself to transforming attics into luxurious living spaces. In 2001, he teamed up with Karl Kovarik, heir to Stroh-Tankstellen, to found Immofina, a precursor to the Signa Group.
Rene Benko’s big break came with the acquisition of the Tyrol department store, leading to a real estate empire that includes the Golden Quartier, the opulent Park Hyatt hotel, the iconic Postsparkasse in Vienna, and a 50% stake in the Chrysler Building in New York. Additionally, he has ambitious plans for the Elbtower in Hamburg, set to reach a staggering one billion euros by 2025. Signa Holding is predominantly owned indirectly by Benko’s family, with a 78% stake, while a family foundation associated with Hans Peter Haselsteiner holds 15%.
Expanding into Retail
Rene Benko’s expansion into the retail sector in 2012, alongside Israeli entrepreneur Beny Steinmetz, saw the acquisition of Berlin’s famous KaDeWe department store and the purchase of 16 properties from the German Karstadt department store group, totaling over a billion euros. In 2019, the acquisition of the Kaufhof Group led to the creation of Galeria Karstadt Kaufhof Group, which sought government protection during the pandemic. Despite two billion euros in debt forgiveness, around 4,000 employees were laid off, and approximately 40 stores closed.
Signa made headlines in Austria in 2018 with the acquisition of furniture retailer Kika-Leiner and expanded to Switzerland in 2020 with the purchase of the Globus department store chain, partnering with Thai investors. They also acquired Sport Scheck in Germany. In August of the current year, Rene Benko and his Thai partners made headlines again by purchasing the prestigious British department store chain Selfridges for a staggering four billion euros. Simultaneously, the Elbtower project in Hamburg continued to evolve, while in Vienna, the “Viennese KaDeWe” emerged on the site where “Leiner” once stood. Signa also actively operates in the sports and outdoor retail sector through Signa Sports United, boasting around a hundred online shops.
Entry into the Media Industry
Around 2018, Rene Benko, who was already the founder and chairman of Signa Holding’s advisory board, extended his influence into the media industry. Signa entered the media sector through its media GmbH and the German WAZ Group, acquiring major shares in the Austrian Newspapers “Krone” and “Kurier.” This move raised eyebrows, particularly due to the discontent of Christoph Dichand, co-owner, editor, and chief editor of “Krone.”
Despite his impressive achievements, Rene Benko has not escaped controversy. He has faced criticism for receiving German government funds through Signa and subsequently downsizing and closing branches. His close political associations with figures such as Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ), Alfred Gusenbauer (SPÖ), and Sebastian Kurz have also come under scrutiny. Notably, his connection to the influential former Green Party spokesperson and Vienna city council member, Christoph Chorherr, has led to charges in the so-called Chorherr donation case. Rene Benko’s involvement in this case coincided with other allegations that led to a conviction, although the sentence has been served. The Chorherr case will begin in November, and the presumption of innocence prevails.
The Signa Group’s business practices were questioned by Bloomberg, but the company defended itself, citing independent appraisals and audits conducted by financial examiners. In Austria, the Kika-Leiner deal and its circumstances raised eyebrows and generated critical questions in a parliamentary committee. Furthermore, the Kika-Leiner department store group received government COVID-19 assistance while placing employees on short-time work.
Germany’s Galeria Department Store Crisis
The woes facing the Galeria department store group in Germany show no sign of abating. In the 2020/21 fiscal year, losses exceeded a staggering 620 million euros, while Galeria’s revenues amounted to approximately two billion euros. The outlook for this year is equally grim, with expectations of a “net loss in the low to mid million range” and a decline in sales. Reports indicate that the department store group is poised to once again seek government assistance.
Rubbing Shoulders with Celebrities
In contrast to his media-shy demeanor, René Benko, who has five children in total, including four with his second wife, has been hosting high-profile Törggelen events since 2009. The autumn Törggelen gatherings, a South Tyrolean tradition centered around chestnut feasting, have been graced by a multitude of notable figures at Signa Holding on Freyung. Rene Benko has had amicable relations with key political figures, including those from the Turquoise party and their associates, such as Thomas Schmid, as evidenced by numerous chats. What unfolds from these interactions and the investigations by the WKStA remains to be seen.
In a candid interview with the German “Handelsblatt,” Rene Benko once outlined the prerequisites for a successful investor. According to him, success requires ample time, “the intuition and acumen of a born entrepreneur,” and the meticulous cultivation of a network over the course of many years. He notably omitted the potential pitfalls and challenges inherent in this process.