(Bloomberg) -- Austrian tycoon Rene Benko’s Signa filed for insolvency after a last-ditch attempt to raise emergency funding failed, making the co-owner of New York’s Chrysler building one of the most prominent casualties of Europe’s property crisis.
The filing is a bitter blow for the self-made mogul, who was known to boast that only the British royal family and the Catholic church could rival his array of exclusive properties. With assets valued at €23 billion ($25 billion) at the end of last year, the collapse may become the largest real estate meltdown in Europe since the global financial crisis.
Signa Holding GmbH said it made the filing on Wednesday in Vienna with the goal of managing its own restructuring under court supervision, according to an emailed statement from the company. “Despite considerable efforts in recent weeks, the necessary liquidity for an out-of-court restructuring could not be sufficiently secured,” the company said.
The Vienna Commercial Court confirmed the filing and will name an administrator on Thursday, it said in an emailed statement.
Signa Holding is the centerpiece of a portfolio that includes Selfridges department store in London, luxury malls in Vienna and an historic hotel in Venice. The company owns stakes in units, which hold the assets directly as part of a complex structure that hampered fund raising talks.
The company indicated it was seeking to maintain operations, but it’s unclear how subsidiaries — which include Signa Development and Signa Prime, the two largest — might be affected. A German unit of Signa Prime recently filed for insolvency at a Berlin court, following a similar move from an affiliated sports retailer.
“The aim is to continue business operations within the framework of self-administration,” Signa Holding said.
Under that type of insolvency, Signa Holding would maintain autonomy to dispose of assets and restructure its debt. It would have to present a turnaround plan that’s accepted by a majority of creditors within 90 days. At least 30% of claims need to be paid back within two years.
“Company managers want self-administration, partly because it sounds better when communicating to the outside world,” said Dragica Banovic, an insolvency attorney at law firm hww in Frankfurt. “However, the proceedings are still insolvency proceedings.”
What set Benko apart from many other property investors is that the 46-year-old continued to make high-profile acquisitions even as challenges to his debt-driven strategy started to surface in recent years. The end of the cheap-money era then triggered a drop in valuations and a cash crunch, and Signa’s obscure structure left it especially vulnerable.
Read More: Billionaire Benko’s Empire Risks Unraveling
In frantic talks to secure up to €600 million of short-term liquidity, Signa reached out to a wide range of financiers including Mubadala Investment Co., Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, Attestor Capital and Elliott Investment Management, people familiar with the discussions have said. But Signa’s complexity and the tight time frame for a deal were too much to overcome.
The fallout from the insolvency is likely to be another blow for Europe’s battered commercial real estate sector by potentially forcing a fire sale of assets and resetting valuations even lower.
Financial contagion though could be limited. Signa’s largest exposure is to banks for funding acquisitions and construction work on development projects, such as Hamburg’s Elbtower. Those loans are often secured against the property, meaning banks may be well-positioned to recoup losses.
The rapid expansion of Benko’s empire spurred regulatory scrutiny. The European Central Bank asked several lenders that worked with the company in Austria, Germany and other European countries to write down part of their exposure, Bloomberg News reported in August.
The implosion will leave a wake of uncertainty. In Germany, construction work had been halted at the Elbtower and other sites, and dozens of cities face closures of Signa’s Galeria department stores, leaving yawning gaps in downtown shopping districts.
In Austria alone, 390 companies are affiliated with Signa Holding, creditor representative KSV1870 said in a statement. “From today’s standpoint, it’s impossible to predict whether further companies of the Signa Group will file for insolvency, and whether it will lead to a domino-effect,” said Karl-Heinz Götze, the head of insolvencies at the group.
At Signa Development, holders of the group’s only publicly-listed bond have been assessing whether breached financing terms after the unit revealed hundreds of millions of euros were owed to it by other Signa entities. Ringfencing measures should have protected bondholders from wider difficulties at Signa, Fitch Ratings said at the time.
The €300 million notes maturing in 2026 were indicated at 9.8 cents on the euro, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. Just a month ago, they were quoted at around 67 cents.
Thailand’s Central Group could be a key player in the fallout. The retail conglomerate has already secured control of Selfridges’ operating company by converting a loan into equity earlier this month. The company owned by the Chirathivat family is also a partner with Benko in Switzerland’s Globus chain and Berlin’s KaDeWe and has said it will support its European assets
In Benko’s rise to one of Europe’s biggest property dealmakers, he gained the trust of Europe’s elite, counting Austrian construction tycoon Hans Peter Haselsteiner, German transportation magnate Klaus-Michael Kuehne and France’s Peugeot family among his investors. They now stand to lose heavily.
Despite contributing almost €1 billion in fresh capital to the two largest Signa units just last year, Benko’s once-loyal backers balked at extending more money. A group pushed the founder to step aside and recruited restructuring experts Arndt Geiwitz and Ralf Schmitz to spearhead a turnaround. But it was too late to save a group that bet heavily on brick-and-mortar retail.
“Investments in this area did not yield the anticipated success,” Signa said in its statement.
--With assistance from Karin Matussek.
(Adds court statement in fourth paragraph, lawyer comment in ninth, bond price in 19th.)
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.