A little-known Czech investor from a suburb in Prague has taken over a scandal-ridden German travel portal and a huge area of business.
Unister, the fallen online travel company, started out small, became an internet sensation and package tour giant, before suddenly ending in insolvency when its founder died in a plane crash.
Rumors about meetings in Venice, an Israeli diamond dealer and a suitcase packed with counterfeit cash made Unister’s story one of the most colorful of 2016.
When Thomas Wagner was killed in the crash of his private jet, his empire, made up of a complex web of 40 travel sites, fell apart.
Now, a new chapter is opening for some of Unister’s travel portals as Prague investor Jakub Havrlant takes over. His firm, Rockaway bought the German startup’s vacation portals with Chinese money.
Mr. Havrlant is unknown in Germany, but back home in the Czech Republic, he is feted as a wunderkind. He is quietly spoken and confided to Handelsblatt that chatting with journalists isn’t really his thing.
But he is sharp, focused and knows how to get what he wants.
He beat six powerful rivals including big names such as TV station Pro Sieben to seize Unister’s portals. According to Czech media, he paid €75 million for the sites. He himself declined to name the sum, and merely stated, “There’s a lot to do now.”
A young graduate of Prague’s business university, he set up a rental portal early in his career that soon became profitable. He used the proceeds to build up his holding company Rockaway which put €500 million in eastern European travel portals, e-commerce and financial comparisons, generating €1.8 billion in revenues last year.
He expanded, bought an internet department store which delivers to central and eastern Europe, unlike industry giant Amazon, financed by Czech oligarch Daniel Křetinský, the billionaire owner of Sparta Prague.
A bigger fish, Chinese gas and oil company CEFC, financed Mr. Havrlant’s next purchase, the travel portal “Invia,” the market leader in the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Poland and Hungary. The portals he bought from Unister will be folded into the offering.
CEFC has been developing its tourism business for some time now and the privately owned company from Shanghai also owns Sparta Prague’s local rival Slavia Prague.
Modest Mr. Havrlant isn’t focusing on the scandal; he’s busy growing the business. His new step is a risky one: while he claims the former Unister portals – and 520 employees in Leipzig – recently made a profit, the scandal damaged their reputation and some former market leaders have ceded their spots to rival Holidaycheck.
The portal is also promising to change its ways from questionable past practices such as selling travel coupons which vacationers struggled to redeem post-bankruptcy, or making vacation guests buy expensive and unwanted additional services.
The future is brighter, Mr. Havrlant hopes, and it goes beyond Germany’s borders. For now though, things are already different. “We will focus on customer satisfaction,” Mr. Havrlant said, “not on artificial growth.”
Handelsblatt’s Christoph Schlautmann covers companies and markets. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org