Holiday hell

Storm Clouds Shroud Online Travel Broker

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Stormy weather ahead for travel company Unister.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Once celebrated as a model Eastern German start-up, Unister is now facing significant losses, stagnant sales, growing debt and charges related to tax evasion. This may effect its bid to sell off its travel divisions.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Unister lost €27.7 million ($35.3 million) in 2013 while debt rose to €34.1 million. Revenues are stagnant at €358.2 million.
    • Several of the company’s co-founders are being investigated over allegations of tax evasion.
    • The firm is looking to sell off its travel division, which generates about 90 percent of revenues.
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    Audio

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Internet company Unister Holding, owner of the travel web sites Fluege.de and Ab-in-den-urlaub.de, is facing serious financial difficulties.

Handelsblatt has obtained a copy of the company’s consolidated financial statement, which discloses net losses for 2013 totaling €27.7 million ($35.3 million) while total debt was €34.1 million. Meanwhile, annual revenues were stagnant at €358.2 million. The figures were compiled by the accounting firm BDO International.

Little has been know about Unister’s financial condition until now. The company rarely makes its balance sheets public. But, apparently, Germany’s largest travel broker has been financed by private equity contributions rather than bank loans. Unister, based in Leipzig, received two loans of €20 million each in late 2013 and earlier in 2014. Unister refused to comment on specific financial details, but a spokesperson said company executives are satisfied with how the business is running and that the deficit numbers do not reflect the performances of the company’s individual divisions.

At the moment, the firm is looking to raise cash by selling off its travel division, which generates about 90 percent of revenues. Handelsblatt has learned Unister hired the New York-based investment bank, Jefferies LLC, to handle the sale. Jeffries is distributing the company’s financial figures to private equity firms and touting “a unique investment opportunity” with a “strong growth dynamic.”

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Peter Zimmermann, Unister CEO, may not be smiling for long. Source: Unister

 

Viewed from the outside, all is well with the world at Unister. Retired soccer star Michael Ballack still gives the big “thumbs up” in advertisements for its premium online vacation booking portal, Ab-in-den-urlaub.de. And former soccer manager Reiner Calmund, dressed as an airplane pilot, still promises a “€50 money-back coupon” at its sister portal, Fluege.de. The popular pair have represented Unister for many years.

But the facade of success is not replicated inside the company.

The consolidated financial statements for 2013 offer a more in-depth view of the company for the first time in almost three years. Unister is close to running afoul of the disclosure requirements of the German Commercial Code as the company’s last financial statement published in the Bundesanzeiger, the official publication of the German justice department, is almost three years old.

The firm is looking to raise cash by selling off its travel division, which generates about 90 percent of revenues.

Fantastical reports of the company’s value have recently been circulating. The Bloomberg news agency reported the market value of Unister at upward of €1.5 billion, while the sales pitches for the travel division continue to focus on the great investment opportunity Unister presents. The company may indeed offer opportunity, but the financial figures from 2013 paint a rather gloomy picture overall.

The once dynamic growth of the group, which owns hundreds of other Internet domains besides the travel web sites, ebbed away in 2013. Sales were €358.2 million — only €200,000 more than in 2012 — substantially missing the target of €390 million. Even more alarming, however, are the profit and loss figures, where Unister saw heavy losses. The company lost €26.4 million in 2013 after losing €8.8 million the year before. The annual deficit rose to €27.7 million from €3.9 million over the same time period with a net loss in 2013 of €34.1 million. At base, a little less than 10 cents was lost for every one euro in sales, a painful imbalance that has depleted Unister’s equity. The BDO report shows Unister with a “surplus of debts over assets” of €4.7 million.

thomas wagner_Unister_DPA
Unister founder Thomas Wagner is being investigated for tax evasion. Source: DPA

 

Unister waved away outside inquiries. “We ask for your kind understanding that the company is not going to respond to individual questions. We do, however, wish to point out that the visibility of the performance of individual company divisions cannot be read from the documents evidently in your possession,” a spokesperson said. “In this regard, you should not forget that, as is often the case with growing Internet companies, the investments in growth are correspondingly high. That is perfectly normal.”

Is it really business as usual? The report that Unister didn’t want to make public contains more bombshells. For example, in 2013 the company gave more than €361,000 ($460,211.83) to business manager and major stockholder Thomas Wagner as a loan after giving him €340,000 in 2012. “The debt was not repaid during the business year,” says the annual financial statement.

With the exception of for Mr. Wagner, Unister’s business model doesn’t appear to be profitable, though for years, it was considered very clever. The company provides comparisons of flights and travel packages. If a user books a trip or a flight through the portal, the company receives a commission from the airline or tour operator. Unister was celebrated for years as a model Eastern German start-up and even created problems for industry giants like TUI Travel.

Despite its success, however, Unister was burning through money at a very fast rate. Seeking to grow quickly, the company bought up one Internet domain after another, often at lavish prices. For example, the company said it spent €1.96 million for the domain shopping.de and €900,000 for kredit.de. The number of employees also soared, rising to about 2,000, far more than similar-sized Internet companies.

In September, Chief Financial Officer Hansjörg Plaggemars resigned, just six months after taking the job.

The difficulty of moving beyond the core business into new operations can be seen in Unister’s retail division, which generated only €15.9 million, or its finance division, which saw only €20.3 million in sales. Outside the travel business, industry observers believe, Unister is just burning through cash.

Still, the company remains confident. “We are very satisfied with the way business is progressing,” a spokesperson said, adding the company is “currently not only in good shape but we are setting the course to be well positioned in the medium- and long-term and continue to see considerable growth potential.”

Threatening that rosy viewpoint, however, are Unister’s many ongoing legal battles against media, consumer protection groups and other companies. Last year alone, the company spent €10.4 million on legal fees not related to accounting. It also spent another €7 million on “increased consultation fees in connection with the structuring and financing of the group.”

How such figures are supposed to lure investors may be the biggest question. The balance sheets shine bright red while in September, Chief Financial Officer Hansjörg Plaggemars resigned, just six months after taking the job, citing family reasons. Meanwhile, as the Jeffries banking firm looks for investors, charges have been filed in the district court of Leipzig against Mr. Wagner and several of the cofounders, who are accused of tax evasion, unlawful marketing and the sale of insurance products. Whether the charges will result in a trial has not yet been decided.

As is the norm, Unister had no comment.

 

Heinz-Roger Dohms is a freelance finance journalist who writes for Handelsblatt, Die Zeit and other major German publications. To contact the author: hr.dohms@schreiberdohms.de

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