The collapse of SC Pohorje, the former operator of Maribor Pohorje’s ski-lifts and a raft of hotel accommodation in the region appears to have set in motion an unforeseen chain of events in Slovenia’s second city, involving a diverse and seemingly unconnected host of investors, all of who could inadvertently affect the long-term financial health and viability of not only their own but also each other’s newly acquired assets.
The whole house of cards began to collapse when SC Pohorje were no longer able to meet its liabilities, putting in jeopardy the winter season and in particular the running of the Golden Fox World Cup slalom race, scheduled for January. SC Pohorje’s assets were split into two, effectively highlighting to would-be investors which was the more toxic or perhaps, which was less toxic than the other. Maribor’s Municipality or more accurately, Marprom, the city’s own mass-transit operator, was the first to blink, saving the forthcoming ski season and putting off, for this January at least, the ignominy of having to default on Slovenia’s blue riband ski event on the world cup circuit. This deal to maintain and operate the lift system and piste grooming equipment only runs until the end of March and again, puts the vital ski lift infrastructure up for auction, should in the meantime a more permanent solution not be found.
SC Pohorje’s accommodation portfolio was subsequently snapped up by Terme Maribor or more accurately, through its Russian owners who have taken a substantial risk, be it a calculated one or otherwise, by leasing for a year a collection of hotels who are effectively chasing the same clientele as its preexisting overnight accommodation. Both Marprom’s and Terme Maribor’s faith in Pohorje as a viable winter-sports destination is admirable but in the end will all be in vain if the biggest factor that is out of their control, the weather, continues in the same vain that ultimately brought about SC Pohorje’s demise; if it doesn’t snow, the tills won’t ring. It would seem that Pohorje’s fortunes and those of its stakeholders are particularly vulnerable to not only the capriciousness of the local weather but also the relatively low altitude that it tops out at, combined with its comparatively disadvantageous geographical position in the far east of Slovenia, when compared to the likes of Vogel above Bohinj. When there is no snow but the temperatures are sufficiently low, snow-making machinery can step into the breach to produce ski-able slopes but often, a snow-less scene during midwinter in the Maribor region can resemble a late autumn/early spring day with the sunny, cloudless skies most winter-sports enthusiasts crave but without the required low temperatures. Without a robust, variegated and long-term business plan which insulates itself against short-term setbacks, it is hard to see how any organisation can year in year out make the ski slopes above Maribor profitable; in such circumstances, it is perhaps more implausible still as to how the not insubstantial amount of hotel rooms in the area can become close to putting up the ‘maximum occupancy’ signs.
In these uncertain times, things can and do change quickly and Maribor, is proving to be no exception. As the saying goes, yesterday’s news is today’s chip papers, what with the fluid situation continuing at almost breakneck speed following the news that Factor Financing, a subsidiary of the Russian energy giant Gazprom is on the verge of acquiring Terme Maribor’s tourist accommodation portfolio from Russian counterparts Platanus who, to reiterate, only recently leased on a year long deal the hotels relinquished by SC Pohorje. A confusing situation that sees the plot thicken yet further now it has come to light that Platanus/Terme Maribor are in debt to the tune of EUR 30 million, dating back to their acquisition of Terme Maribor’s stable of accommodation from previous owners Sava and NFD Holdings. This begs the question, what were Platanus/Terme Maribor thinking of when signing the year-long lease for control of SC Pohorje’s former hotels, if they are already unable to meet their liabilities on a historic agreement? Cynics will point to Platanus/Terme Maribor purely acting as a stalking-horse for Gazprom’s potential acquisition someway down the line of the quartet of hotels in question but until it has been confirmed, in the light of Gazprom’s intervention, that the agreement stands between SC Pohorje’s liquidator and Platanus/Terme Maribor, such cynicism amounts to nothing more than speculation.
Now having a hegemonic grip upon the local tourist accommodation, Gazprom’s financial muscle and commensurate business acumen could be just what the the tourism sector in Maribor needs although, the unease fomenting across Slovenia fueled by the rapidity of the privatization of former publically-owned institutions, through foreign-based acquisitions, will be in no way appeased by this latest incursion into Slovenia’s business community from abroad. It is perhaps previously though little known that Terme Maribor was already controlled by a Russian company who, since their arrival have presided over a 15% reduction in revenue, a trend Gazprom will be seeking to reverse. Slovenes with a desire for Slovenia to remain Slovenian will cast a hopefully glance towards Aerodrom Maribor, who have bucked the recent trend by being recapitalised by its new majority shareholder, the Slovenian savings bank Delavska hranilnica. If a ‘local’ company can realise the almost untapped potential of Maribor’s airport, it will prove that foreign ownership is not always a panacea to succeed where others have failed.
Special thanks to the The Slovenia Times and Dnevnik for their comprehensive articles on this complicated situation, links to which can be found below: