Signa administrator sacks company’s party planners, hunters and jet crew

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The administrator for the company at the centre of René Benko’s property empire has sacked the party planners, receptionists, hunters and private jet crew that together made up most of its staff, a court application in Vienna shows.

Signa Holding, which sat atop a property portfolio that included Selfridges in London, KaDeWe in Berlin and the Chrysler Building in New York, filed for insolvency last week, leaving creditors trying to unpick a web of companies, assets and debt.

The independent administrator tasked with helping steer the company through insolvency on Tuesday said he was cutting off all “non-essential” business activities in an effort to preserve cash, affecting about three dozen employees, out of 43 in total.

“The closure of all non-essential parts of the business includes, in particular, hunting, flight, security and event management personnel for representation and business initiation tasks,” the court filing said.

Signa Holding declined to comment. 

Although Signa Holding only employed 43 people, it was the management company responsible for overseeing the finances of a group with €27bn in assets and an estimated €13bn in debt.

Signa Holding’s liabilities doubled over the past year, to €5bn, the FT reported on Monday, as Benko sought to stave off financial collapse.

But two people familiar with the insolvency proceedings claimed Signa Holding had been spending “millions of euros” annually on travel arrangements for Benko, 46, and lavish entertainments to burnish the company’s reputation.

Benko gave up his formal management positions in Signa after an Austrian court found him guilty of bribery in 2013. But he remained in control as its biggest shareholder via his family foundations.

Signa has a helicopter and a corporate jet at its founder’s disposal.

Flight records show Signa’s jet was used for trips to Africa, Ibiza, and Brescia in northern Italy over the past year. Brescia is close to the Lake Garda villa that Signa Holding reportedly rents at a cost of €20,000 a month from a Liechtenstein trust.

Such trips and social events were an essential part of Signa’s business model, company insiders said, pointing to Benko’s huge success in winning some of the most famous family offices and entrepreneurs in Europe — including the Rausings and Peugeots — as co-shareholders.

Potential Signa investors and lenders were often wooed at Signa Holding’s headquarters in Innsbruck with a range of traditional Tyrolean pursuits, such as alpine sports and hunting, with no expenses spared, said one former Signa employee.

Some would be invited to stay with Benko at his chalet in the mountains nearby, or else at the Chalet N luxury hotel Signa owned in Lech, one of the most expensive ski resorts in the Alps.

Benko has long been known for his networking. His annual Törggelen — a traditional Tyrolean harvest feast — became a fixture on the Vienna social scene before the pandemic, with most of the country’s leading politicians attending after he began hosting it with increasing extravagance at the Signa-owned Park Hyatt.

Additional reporting by Cynthia O’Murchu in London

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