Insolvencies after owner dies in plane crash

Thomas Wagner died in a plane crash.
Thomas Wagner died in a plane crash.

Germany’s largest online travel retailer, Unister Holding, and several subsidiaries have declared insolvency after owner Thomas Wagner died in a plane crash following a mysterious financial deal.

Wagner, who founded the Unister group in 2002 and developed it into Germany’s largest online travel retailer, was killed when his private plane crashed in Slovenia on a flight from Venice back to Leipzig last week. The other three persons on board, Oliver Schilling, a fellow Unister shareholder, a German financial advisor and the pilot, also died in the crash.

German media reported that 38-year-old Wagner had flown to Venice in an unsuccessful bid to secure a loan, and had taken about several million euros in cash as security. Allegedly, Wagner handed over €1.2 million in cash to the financier in Vencie as security but the bulk of the €10 million ‘loan’ he received turned out to be forgeries. Wagner apparently already filed a legal case in Venice before departing.

Slovenian police confirmed that about 10,000 Swiss francs were discovered at the site of the plane crash but did not confirm reports of a suitcase with several million euros. Daniel Kirchhoff, the group’s former CFO who owns a 16.7% stake in Unister, demanded an investigation into why “a lot of cash” had apparently been transported in the plane.

Following emergency shareholder meetings, Unister Holding declared itself insolvent and an experienced insolvency administrator was appointed. At that time, Unister stressed that its operational subsidiaries, including Unister Travel, which runs popular portals such as Ab In Den Urlaub and Flüge.de, would continue to trade normally, and emphasised that customers would not be impacted by the insolvency of the holding company.

However, on Tuesday, the group’s small in-house tour operator Urlaubstours also declared insolvency. No reason was given for this move. Unister stated that all booked holidays were covered by insolvency insurance and would take place, but no new bookings would be accepted.

Then on Wednesday, the Udeals travel portal, which created ‘dynamic packages’ of flights, hotels and other travel services, also declared insolvency, according to German media. Another subsidiary, Unister GmbH, which ran several non-travel online businesses, also declared insolvency.

The group’s insolvency administrator Lucas Flöther said that Unister “urgently needs an investor” and claimed that “a high two-digit number” of potential investors had already contacted him. The simplest solution would be to sell the entire group as a whole but other solutions were also possible, he said.

The rapid and dramatic events at the Leipzig-based company have shocked the German tourism industry and raised questions about the future of its larger tourism portals, which sell holidays, flights and other travel products on a commission basis. Customers pay the travel suppliers directly, and Unister earns a sales commission per booking.

Unister’s finances have frequently been the subject of speculation and the company publishes very few official figures. The holding company was apparently unprofitable, mostly due to losses at non-travel businesses, but the core travel business makes a small profit. The overall group, with about 1,100 employees, has net sales of about €500 million, while it sells holidays and other products with an estimated total value of about €2 billion.

The company’s reputation has been hit in recent years by investigations into allegations of potential tax avoidance and other improper business practices. Talks took place to find a potential investor for the group and a flotation was also considered but no deals were finalised.

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