May 21, 2024

These people helped him build the Signa Shadow Empire

Three people supported Rene Benko in building his enigmatic company of more than 1,000 companies. Despite the bankruptcy, they are all still in office. Can this work?

René Benco and his companions Manuel Perrault, Markus Mühlberger and Karin Voormann (from left).

Illustration by Simon Tanner/NZZ

Rene Benko lives with his family in Iglis, a small town above Innsbruck. In 2016, he had a luxury villa built on a sunny slope where the Schlosshotel Igls was located. To be more precise: the 5,500 m2 property was built by the specially established company Schlosshotel-Igls-Betriebs-GmbH. The company is owned by Benko's Laura Private Foundation, named after one of his daughters.

However, it appears that Benko is no longer paying for the luxury villa himself, which is rumored to cost €130,000 per month. Signa Holding has officially been acting as a tenant since December 1, 2021. This is the umbrella company for the large-scale Signa construction, in which, in addition to Benko, other investors such as the head of the Swiss company Lindt & Sprüngli Ernst Tanner and the coffee machine entrepreneur Arthur Ogster are also involved. How do they come to pay for Benko's private accommodation?

It's simple: the person who was able to sign contracts on both sides had the same name. On the one hand, Markus Mühlberger is Managing Director of Signa Holding. On the other hand, it works too Managing Director of Schlosshotel-Igls-Betriebs-GmbH. It is a dual role that presents conflicts of interest.

In the inner circle

Muhlberger belongs to a close circle of Benko's inner circle who helped the 47-year-old build a complex empire of more than 1,000 real estate and business companies from the 2000s onwards. In the lower levels of their most famous companies, Signa Holding, Prime, and Development, they created a shadowy empire that remained hidden even from most Signa investors.

After the companies collapsed at the end of last year, insolvency administrators discovered that Cigna Group's initial organizational chart contained 46 A3 pages. They have not yet been able to get a reasonable overview of the company's structure.

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In addition to Muhlberger, Benko's close circle of friends also includes Manuel Perrault and Karen Foreman, several NZZ sources confirm. These three people appear in a variety of roles at central switching points in Signa's build. Although Signa companies go bankrupt one after another, they are still active in their positions. Who are these people and what role do they now play in cleaning up Cigna's failed empire?

Markus Mühlberger – main site

At first glance, Markus Mühlberger is perhaps Benko's most powerful confidant. The lawyer, who has been at the Tyrolean businessman's side since 2003 and is one of his first employees, is officially in charge of the Signa empire as co-managing director of Signa Holding. He also holds the position of managing director in more than one hundred subsidiaries, as shown by the commercial register.

Meanwhile, Muhlberger is also active on behalf of private individual Rene Benko. Together with Karen Foreman, he forms the board of directors of the Benko Family Private Foundation, where Benko manages his shares in the Signa Group. This multiple role creates conflicts of interest. As Benko's private asset manager, Mühlberger has to represent Benko's concerns. On the other hand, as managing director of several Signa companies in which other investors and lenders are involved, he also has to protect their interests.

The 61-year-old Muehlberger, who rarely appears in public, is more likely a partner in the Cigna empire than a mastermind. According to insiders, he has been helping Benko carry out his plans for twenty years. He signs contracts that Benko is no longer able to sign himself since he relinquished all his official positions at Signa Group in 2013 following his conviction. Internally, this earned him the title of CSO: Chief Signing Officer.

Manuel Perrault – Master of Money

Manuel Perrault is considered the “Master of Money.” The 41-year-old Tyrolean is probably the most important person alongside Benko. Perrault controlled – in close coordination with Benko – where the money came to Cigna and where it went. Only Perrault and Benko would likely understand the complex financial connections between Cigna's countless companies.

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Pirolt joined Signa in 2011 from audit firm BDO and has served as CFO of Signa Prime and Signa Development since 2013. At this point he helped create the company's opaque network. Pirolt works as a managing director in hundreds of subsidiaries in the Signa Shadow Empire.

Meanwhile, Pirolt also works in Benko's own environment. Since 2015, he has been Managing Director of the Laura Private Foundation, where Benko manages his private assets, such as his yacht “Roma”, his art collection and the aforementioned residence in Innsbruck. Perrault is also likely to take over as CFO at Signa Holding. He is considered highly skilled and creative in structuring finances and presenting key financial figures. Signa's companies seemed well-capitalized until shortly before their demise.

Karen Foreman – Tax and Legal Expert

According to informed sources, what Pirolt represented regarding Signa's financial affairs, Karin Fuhrmann represented for the legal (tax) structuring of the company. The 57-year-old lawyer is an expert in real estate law. She has co-authored several specialized books and has been named “Tax Consultant of the Year for Real Estate and Construction” in Austria several times.

Foreman not only advised Signa on the company's purchases and sales. Through its law firm TPA, it has also tried to ensure that Signa's holding company can avoid the obligation of an impending merger The documents show what was published by the Austrian magazine “News”. Thanks to TPA's input, the group's most important companies did not have to prepare a consolidated balance sheet. This would allow investors and banks to obtain a transparent, comprehensive picture.

Foreman still handles Signa Holding's accounting with TPA. The company is also preparing the numbers for review before BDO officially examines and certifies them. As an individual, Forman has also sat on the board of Benko Family Private Foundation since 2011. This raises the issue of a conflict of interest.

Rene Benko – Actual Managing Director

The actual mastermind behind the Signa network is and remains Rene Benko. He has officially no longer had a role in the creation of Signa since the end of 2013. But in the meantime, fellow shareholders such as Austrian building contractor Hans Peter Hasselsteiner have clarified that Benko in fact continued as managing director of the Signa Group after that. According to insiders, the company's founder always wanted to be fully informed about everything. He interferes in management decisions. Above all, take care of financing issues alone until the end.

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The business relationship between Benko and its core team has always been close. They lived in Innsbruck. Pirolt and Mühlberger had their offices next to each other in the same building. However, they don't seem to be friends in private – perhaps because Benko has never been interested in private matters. On the other hand, Pinko's companions are likely to be extremely loyal to him. They don't have much of a choice: Mühlberger and Perrault have signed many things, while Benko hasn't done so for ten years. None of those close to Benko wanted to take an official position on the NZZ questions.

Close cooperation with insolvency administrators

All of Cigna's major companies – the holding company and real estate companies Prime and Development – are now insolvent. Restructuring or insolvency administrators have formally taken over the reins of the three Austria-based companies.

But Pinko's three companions are still in their old roles.

This situation upsets investors and creditors of Signa companies. The holding company's co-shareholders reported that only Mühlberger attends Signa's media events, and sometimes also his co-managing director, but not the appointed insolvency administrator.

Both shareholders and creditors themselves ask whether the insolvency administrators have received the necessary information from the previous management and whether they have had sufficient intervention. Might “Team Banco,” with its multiple roles and significant information advantage, continue to pursue the interests of the company founder?

This would create an impediment to the work of insolvency administrators and harm the mood of creditors: they must fear that historical misconduct will be covered up and Banco will continue to secure assets – at their expense.