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Eleanor Pringle

Luxury property billionaire might have seen his fortune become completely worthless overnight after his firm filed for insolvency

Rene Benko during the Grand Opening at Oberpollinger on May 11, 2022 in Munich, Germany. (Credit: Franziska Krug - Getty Images for Oberpollinger/ The KaDeWe Group)

Rene Benko reportedly liked to joke that only the British Royal family and the Pope had a more exclusive property portfolio than him.

After all, the billionaire controlled Signa Holding, a complex web of real estate companies which ultimately held half of New York's Chrysler Building as well as a stake in London's famous Selfridges department store, and more.

However whether Benko's position will continue to stand up to comparison with a monarchy and the Catholic Church remains to be seen. The empire had been valued at €23 billion ($24 billion) in assets at the end of 2022, but last week Signa filed for bankruptcy.

Signa filed for insolvency in Austrian courts—where the holding group is based—on Nov. 29. According to the filing seen by Fortune, creditors have until Jan. 15, 2024 to register their interests.

"The aim is the orderly continuation of business operations… and the sustainable restructuring of the company," it said, according to Reuters.

Unclear outcome

What this means for Benko—previously valued at around $4 billion—and his family is unclear.

According to Bloomberg, the Benko Family Private Trust held 66% of Signa's parent company. There are two offshoots from the holding group defined on Sigma's website as real estate and retail arms.

On the real estate side is Signa Prime, which owns exclusive real estate; Signa Development, which invests in the likes of office blocks and residential towers; Signa RFR US Selection, which acquires "trophy assets" with a focus on New York City; and Signa Luxury Hotels.

On the retail side is Sign Premium which runs the The KaDeWe Group, a group of luxury department stores in Germany, and the Signa Department Store Group.

How the collapse into administration by its holding group impacts its subsidiaries remains to be seen, with experts saying even insiders may be at a loss as to what happens next.

“This will be one of the most complex corporate restructurings since the financial crisis,” one Vienna-based lawyer told the Financial Times.

According to Bloomberg's Billionaire's Index, Benko's stake in the conglomerate launched in 2000 has already imploded by $2 billion alone this year.

The news came after Benko, who founded the business, stepped down as chairman in mid-November. In a statement posted to Sigma's LinkedIn page, the business added: "René Benko today handed over the chairmanship of the Advisory Board of SIGNA Holding to Arndt Geiwitz… The Benko Family Private Foundation will continue to be the largest shareholder of the holding company."

Benko added: “In the current situation, this is the best solution for the company, its partners, investors and employees. It is now important to restore trust, and I want to make my contribution to this. SIGNA's real estate portfolio is and remains unique. I am absolutely sure that the company can have a very good future."

Signa did not respond to Fortune's request for comment.

Trouble brewing

The real estate kingpin may already be scaling back on his billionaire lifestyle.

Last last month, Austrian paper the Kurier reported that 46-year-old Benko was selling his triple-deck luxury yacht, RoMa, for €39.9 million (about $43.4 million).

However the asset, which Benko reportedly purchased in 2015, was subsequently delisted and has now been put up for charter. According to YachtCharterFleet—an Airbnb for yachts—RoMa features a swimming pool, movie theatre, and a gym.

It can host up to 12 guests and comes equipped with scuba diving equipment, jet skis, an inflatable sea trampoline and a floating pool.

It can chartered for the princely sum of €420,000 a week in peak summer season, or €345,000 in the low winter season. However of course, chartering a vessel of this size comes with overheads, so extra costs of around €30,000 a week are also to be expected.

Benko isn't the only European luxury mogul who is suffering the after-effects of the pandemic at the moment.

Sigma, like many other real estate businesses, has been battered by higher interest rates that have pushed down property valuations, as well as by businesses scaling back their office presence and as a result, needing less real estate.

It's perhaps a familiar story in the adjacent luxury retail sector, with Bernard Arnault-owned conglomerate LVMH seeing spending scale back as consumers return to "normal" after the upheaval of COVID.

“After three roaring years, and outstanding years, growth is converging toward numbers that are more in line with historical average”, LVMH’s CFO Jean-Jacques Guiony told analysts.

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