Travel tech CEO allegedly fell for a €1.5 million scam before his fatal flight
In the days in July before his chartered plane crashed in Slovenia, Thomas Wagner, founder of Germany’s largest homegrown seller of package tours, was conned out of €1.5 million, say investigators.
Wagner’s holding company, Unister, along with many of its subsidiaries, is now insolvent. Unister owns online travel companies such as fluege.de and ab-in-den-urlaub.de, which together processed Euro 1.9 billion in vacation transactions in 2015.
Wagner had flown from Leipzig to Venice in a chartered jet to meet someone he thought would invest in his financially troubled company. But investigators believe the would-be investor was actually a con artist.
The context of the transaction was financial desperation. Unister’s business was struggling to meet some of its obligations, as Tnooz reported.
Wagner responded to the crisis “by shuffling money around Unister’s various subsidiaries, in moves that appeared designed to shield company cash from creditors,” reported the Financial Times last week.
Someone pitched Wagner on a deal. An investor (apparently pretending to be an Israeli diamond dealer) offered to give Unister a low-interest bridging loan of Euro 10 million, to be paid in Swiss franc.
But this investor demanded Euro 1.5 million as a hedge against default and to cover the fees of the middlemen who made the introduction, according to German media interviews with investigators.
Five percent of the loan, or approximately Euro 750,000, was to go to commissions to the middlemen, according to emails to Mr. Wagner since obtained by Handelsblatt’s reporter Massimo Bognannic.
Wagner is said to have taken out the money from accounts at HolidayReporter, one of the subsidiaries.
Wagner chartered a flight to Venice, bringing along Unister co-founder Oliver Schilling.
They met the supposed investor at the Antony Palace, a boutique hotel. Wagner and Schilling gave the con artist Euro 1.5 million, investigators say.
In turn, the con artist gave Wagner and Schilling a suitcase that was supposed to have the initial portion of the investment in Swiss francs.
After the exchange, Wagner and Schilling discovered that there were only 10,000 Swiss franc, or about Euro 9,200, in the suitcase. The rest of the cash was counterfeit.
The total was supposed to have been about 25% of the loan’s value, according to emails Wagner received and that were obtained by Handelsblatt. (One of the go-betweens who apparently was present at the Venice meeting, has given testimony to police, Handelsblatt reports.)
Wagner reported the scam to Italian authorities. Then Wagner and Schilling took their fateful flight home.
The pilot reported problems with icing. The plane crashed in Slovenia.
It was a dramatic ending for Wagner, 38, who had been born in East Germany and for a time had been hailed as one of German’s leading capitalist success stories of the Internet era. He had founded Unister in 2002 and grew it into a dynamo that, at its height, had about 1,800 employees.
But in recent years, a few Unister executives found themselves under scrutiny by prosecutors, as Tnooz has reported. In each situation, the accused said they are innocent.
Last week, Die Zeit raised questions about the extreme political beliefs of at least one individual who may have been indirectly influential at the company. That report led, on Thursday, to Unister responding with a statement denying the report and saying that it distances itself from extreme right-wing ideology.
Meanwhile, the company’s supervisors have hired Australian investment bank Macquarie to seek a buyer.
Last week Unister issued a statement saying it has received “expressions of interest” from more than 20 “well-known” travel companies in buying either the group as a whole or individual business lines.
Three leading contenders for buying parts or all of Unister, according to FVW, are: Expedia, Holidaycheck, and media group Pro Sieben Sat 1 (which owns 7 Travel), according to German trade news publication FVW.
Debt and litigation will not be transferred to new owners in the event of a sale, under German law, say press reports.
Meanwhile one of the biggest questions that will never be fully resolved is why Wagner, an experienced businessman, fell for the scam.
Sean O’Neill had roles as a reporter and editor-in-chief at Tnooz between July 2012 and January 2017.