Israeli investor Steinmetz may buy into Germany's Karstadt

FRANKFURT, Germany - Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz and Austrian investor Rene Benko may take a majority stake in German department store chain Karstadt, a person familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

Karstadt was rescued from insolvency in 2010 by billionaire businessman Nicolas Berggruen, but he has come under fire from German unions and media for not investing enough in the chain, allowing rival department store group Kaufhof to boost sales.

Karstadt and Kaufhof, with more than 100 outlets each, are two of Germany's most well known retail chains with stores in every major town, often very close to each other. Kaufhof is part of the Metro group.

Berggruen has talked about a merger of the two department store chains in the past but nothing has come of this and Kaufhof recently dismissed the idea again.

Now Berggruen could be stepping back. He has already sold 75.1 percent stakes in Karstadt's separate premium and sports divisions to Benko in September.

Berggruen has also given Steinmetz, a diamond and mining entrepreneur, and Benko's Signa an option to buy 75.1 percent of Karstadt's main business, comprising 83 department stores, for one euro, the person said. German magazine Manager Magazin earlier reported this development.

The real estate arm of Steinmetz's BSG group and Signa in January formed a joint venture to invest in German retail property.

The magazine also said Steinmetz had acquired a 37.55 percent stake in the premium and sports businesses of Karstadt from Benko, which comprise three high-end department stores and 28 sports stores.

In exchange, Berggruen will get a minority stake in a property company run by Signa and Steinmetz, the magazine report said, plus an option for a 24.9 percent stake in properties rented to Karstadt's three luxury stores - among them the huge KaDeWe on Berlin's famous Kurfuerstendamm shopping street.

A spokesman for BSG in London and a spokeswoman for Nicolas Berggruen declined to comment.

Benko's Signa was not immediately available for comment.

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