Unister Rescue

A Czech Travel Savior

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The acquisition allows the Czech company to gain access to the German speaking travel market, a key step in its ambitions to become a dominant European player.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Unister, a German provider of travel and other portals, was launched in 2002 to widespread acclaim but went bankrupt last year, while its founder died in a plane crash.
    • Rockaway bought Unister’s travel portals for an undisclosed sum in the two-digit millions.
    • Rockaway currently runs travel businesses in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Themenpaket Wechsel der EU-Ratspräsidentschaft – Prag
Prague swoops in to the rescue, as Rockaway buys bankrupt Unister's business. Source: DPA

Unister, one of Germany’s biggest operators of internet travel portals, made headlines last year for its bankruptcy and for the sudden death of its founder and chief executive in a plane crash.

Now, a new chapter is opening as Czech investment company Rockaway Capital this week announced it was acquiring Unister’s travel portal.

The deal spells change for Unister’s 540 employees in Leipzig, though their new boss, Jakub Havrlant, had a career strikingly similar to Thomas Wagner, the deceased founder of Unister.

Now Mr. Havrlant seems bent on following Mr. Wagner’s ambitions, too: Rockaway is hoping to create a European powerhouse in the travel sector. The buy enables Mr. Havrlant, who currently runs businesses in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland, to enter the German-language market.

“We intend to build up a pan-European company.”

Jaroslav Czernek, Czech Investor, Rockaway Capital partner

Mr. Havrlant, the founder and head of Prague-based Internet investment company Rockaway Capital, and Mr. Wagner both came from little towns off the beaten track: Mr. Wagner from Dessau near Leipzig, Mr. Havrlant from the environs of Ostrava on the border between the Czech Republic and Poland. Both studied business; one in Leipzig, the other in Prague. Both founded a start-up at the tender age of 23.

One major difference: Mr. Havrlant sold his start-up at the right time and invested the money profitably in new enterprises. Hopes for Mr. Wagner’s Unister empire rose and fell by contrastm, and the company collapsed right after he died in a private airplane crash in July. Since then, it has been in the hands of insolvency administrator Lucas F. Flöther – and will soon belong to the 32-year old Czech.

From the end of January, Mr. Havrlant will take over Unister’s travel business, paying “a sum in the two-digit millions,” according to his investment partner Jaroslav Czernek.

He has already proved his talents at home. In 2007 while studying business in Prague, Mr. Havrlant set up BezRealitky.cz, a real-estate portal featuring purchase and rental offers with no commission. The start-up was profitable in six months and earned him the title “Start-up Entrepreneur of the Year.” A few years later, he sold the portal to the Allegro Group; in 2013, he used the money for a new beginning as chief executive of Rockaway Capital.

Since then, €400 million has been spent to acquire 20 firms including Mall.cz, the Czech equivalent of Amazon. The beginning of 2016 saw the purchase for €76 million of the Prague-based travel portal Invia.cz, whose business model is similar to Unister’s. Invia is the largest online travel agency in central and eastern Europe, according to Rockaway, and last year provided Invia with a transaction volume of €253 million.

The acquisition in Leipzig boosts Mr. Havrlant’s reach further. With Unister platforms that offer package holidays, flights, tours and hotel reservations, he is increasing his transaction volume fivefold.

“We intend to build up a pan-European company,” Mr. Czernek said last week. The acquisition will mean the firm is involved in 7 national markets with 140 million potential customers.

The business will be operated from Prague, but a large chunk of the cash comes from China. Rockaway’s strategic financial partner is the Shanghai investment group CEFC, which says it is the seventh-largest private company in China.

Like Rockaway, the Chinese have been active in the international tourism sector for some time; at the beginning of August, CEFC bought the luxury hotel Mandarin Oriental in Prague, and it holds a stake in the Czech airline Travel Service.

Mr. Flöther, Unister’s administrator, is relieved that the purchase is going through: “I’m happy that only some five months after the declaration of insolvency, it has been possible to find a strong partner for the Unister travel business.” He called the buyer an experienced investor with long-term prospect who can provide the capital necessary for restoring growth to the business.

Shortly after the announcment, the current head of Unister, Matthias Steinberg, resigned.

While Mr. Flöther spoke positively of the agreement, he gave few details. One negative aspect is that in this asset deal, only the business changes hands, not the terms of labor contract and debts. The insolvency liabilities of Unister Holding GmbH amount to €163 million, according to the provisional report of the insolvency administrator.

It is unclear what percentage of proceeds from the sale of the travel division will go to the creditors of the holding company. In some cases, Unister companies loaned each other money; moreover, many creditors filed double claims.

“It accordingly remains to be seen how high the insolvency quota of the individual firms will turn out to be,” a spokesman said.

The travel division was Unister’s only cash cow among other holdings in the Unister conglomerate. This was clear in early December when Mr. Flöther said that, in spite of a decline in revenues due to the insolvency, the tourism sector and flight portal showed profits.

But there is some brighter news among Unister’s other holdings as well. Seven weeks ago, the administrator found a buyer for a portal offering short trips. Fit Reisen, a tour operator, took over the Unister subsidiary portal Kurz-mal-weg.de for an undisclosed sum. Also up for sale are numerous portals that operate outside the travel business. The first of these also changed hands last week as Solute, an operator of a price comparison portal, bought shopping.de.

 

Handelsbatt’s Christoph Schlautmann covers companies and markets. To contact the author: schlautmann@handelsblatt.com

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