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Published on October 5, 2018 4:30 pm

At the age of 41, René Benko is abounding things: a high-school dropout, a self-made billionaire, and one of Europe’s hottest acreage tycoons. He may additionally about-face out to be the savior of Germany’s acceptable administering stores.

For some, the Innsbruck-born Mr. Benko is an Austrian Donald Trump: a adamant dealmaker with a €4 billion claimed affluence and a aftertaste for the aerial life, in command of a sprawling, blurred authority of companies and investments with revenues aing €12 billion ($13.8 billion).

It can booty a while, but Mr. Benko usually gets his way. For the active tycoon, aftermost ages brought the accomplishment of a abiding ambition. The acknowledged €3.5 billion bid for the Kaufhof alternation of administering stores by Mr. Benko’s Signa Accumulation (also accepted as Signa Holding, see clear below) has paved the way for a alliance with Karstadt, the added aloft German alternation that he acquired in 2014.

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In an absolute account with Handelsblatt, his aboriginal in bristles years, Mr. Benko said he was optimistic about the approaching of administering stores, in animosity of antagonism from bargain brands and internet retailers.

The Austrian administrator said he was “absolutely convinced” that administering food can thrive, aloft all because of their abode in active burghal centers: “We’re talking 200 locations here!” Mr. Benko enthused. He said the alloyed aggregation would absorb both brands, anecdotic them as “enormously powerful.”

Although analysts accept predicted all-embracing abundance closures, Mr. Benko said this would not happen. He said his company’s awakening of Karstadt showed it could accumulate administering food open, and he would action to save every branch: “We can do it, because we angle for dependability, believability and a amusing conscience.”

Unlike Mr. Trump, Mr. Benko wasn’t built-in into privilege. The adolescent of a borough civilian assistant and a kindergarten teacher, he alone out of aerial academy to accompany his ambitious dreams.

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He began with affluence renovations in his hometown of Innsbruck, affective on to advance healthcare centers. Within a few years, massive basic investments, anchored from affluent acquaintances, accustomed him to buy up a bounded administering abundance called Tyrol, which became the ballast for a abundant added burghal makeover.

As the banking crisis unfolded, in 2008 Mr. Benko airtight up a coffer address in Vienna at a knock-down price. Teamed with Hyatt, he angry it into one of the Austrian capital’s swankiest hotels, the centerpiece of an absolute new arcade commune accepted as the Golden Quarter.

Staff and barter of both Karstadt and Kaufhof will achievement that, already the alliance is accustomed by antagonism authorities, Mr. Benko can assignment abracadabra on the aged charcoal of Germany’s administering stores, which accept suffered from decades of decline.

Thirty years ago, there were bristles aloft administering abundance chains in Germany – Kaufhof, Karstadt, Hertie, Horten and Quelle – ancient retail giants alms a ambit of t beneath a distinct roof.

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Even then, however, burghal arcade malls were authoritative administering food assume like anachronistic relics. The aboriginal 1990s saw a abrupt beachcomber of consolidation. By 1994, there were aloof two chains left: Kaufhof and Karstadt, whose city flagship food were sometimes amid appropriate beside anniversary other.

A alliance was the accessible solution. The abstraction was explored at assorted points, but consistently fell through. Meanwhile, the acceleration of internet bartering provided another, added baleful battling to the admirable old bricks-and-mortar stores.

Amazon appeared on the scene, and by 2012, had as abundant bazaar allotment as Kaufhof and Karstadt combined. The internet behemothic has now larboard them in the dust, with revenues now three times that of the two German chains. Added online retailers, like appearance ample Zalando, accept eaten alike added into revenues.

After accepting several bids rebuffed, Mr. Benko swooped on the ailing Karstadt alternation in 2013. The aforementioned year, Kaufhof was bought by the Canadian advance accumulation Hudson’s Bay Aggregation (HBC), with promises to animate the abatement business.

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But while Karstadt began to about-face a bend beneath Mr. Benko’s Signa, Kaufhof connected to fail. With loss-making businesses elsewhere, HBC seemed afraid to accomplish the advance to annoyance the business into the 21st century.

Mr. Benko again approached HBC’s administering with bids for the chain. But Richard Baker, HBC’s boss, reportedly had an acute animosity of the Austrian upstart. “He’d rather ball beyond Fifth Avenue in a bells dress than advertise to Benko,” one cabal told German account annual Der Spiegel.

Restructuring measures at Kaufhof alone worsened the situation, and the alternation connected to drain hundreds of millions of euros. This year, Mr. Baker ate apprehensive pie, traveling to Vienna to cut a accord with his hated rival.

For all his flash, the Austrian billionaire may accept apparent a abstruse that Germany’s abandoned retailers had overlooked. Burghal administering food charge action added than t for sale; they charge to become a new affectionate of affluence burghal “marketplace,” seamlessly coaction with online retail. He insists the Tyrol in Innsbruck, redesigned by starchitect David Chipperfield, shows how it can be done, with its 33,000 aboveboard meters (355,000 sq ft) of affluence retail amplitude cartoon barter in almanac numbers.

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For this to appear in Germany, aloft advance will be needed. Abounding Karstadt and Kaufhof outlets are run-down, with barrio dating from the 1970s. Signa hopes synergies from the alloyed administration, purchasing and IT can save €200 actor a year.

Mr. Benko promises that Kaufhof advisers will acquaintance a actual altered appearance of management: “We will allege the aforementioned accent as staff, assignment against the aforementioned goals, and we’ll accumulate our promises,” he told Handelsblatt. But he insists there is no another to the deal: “Without the merger, Kaufhof has no future. We cannot balloon that,” he said.

Florian Kolf leads a aggregation of correspondents accoutrement the trading and customer area for Handelsblatt. Thomas Tuma is a agent editor in arch at Handelsblatt. Brían Hanrahan acclimatized this adventure into English for Handelsblatt Global. To acquaintance the authors: [email protected], [email protected]

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