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Supermarket_top_dog_Billa,_discount_supermarket_Penny_and_drugstore_and_cosmetics_chain_Bipa_are_part_of_Rewe_International.

BWB boss on Billa price fixing examinations

The head of the Austrian Competition Authority (BWB) has disclosed some details about the investigations against leading supermarket company Rewe International.

The headquarters of the company, which is part of Germany’s Rewe Group, in Wiener Neudorf near Vienna have been searched in the past weeks over suspicions that it engaged in price fixing with suppliers or competitors. Supermarket top dog Billa, discount supermarket Penny and drugstore and cosmetics chain Bipa are part of Rewe International.

Now BWB boss Theo Thanner said his investigating team would not allow company officials to apply pressure as examinations continue. Thanner described the atmosphere at Rewe International’s head office as "aggressive". He criticised that staff tried to get hold of laptops after they were confiscated. Thanner also said yesterday (Mon) that the 15-member team headed by Stefan Keznickl were not allowed to photocopy documents at the headquarters of the company.

Keznickl said he never experienced certain methods and actions in any of the 22 searches he organised in previous cartel and corruption investigations. Thanner said that there was strong evidence indicating that Rewe International was guilty of making illicit pricing arrangements. He refused to give more information and made aware of the obligation of secrecy. The BWB chief said investigations would continue. He informed Austrian media that Keznickl’s team of experts did night shifts to make progress in the case against Rewe International.

The company headed by Frank Hensel – which manages around 2,500 stores across Austria – could be fined if allegations turn out to be true. Thanner did not elaborate on whether BWB investigators planned to search the offices of Rewe International’s partners or rivals. A possible penalty against Rewe International could be as high as 10 per cent of Rewe Group’s annual turnover. The German enterprise raked in two-digit billion-Euro figures a year.

BWB officials previously uncovered a beer price cartel and illegal decisions by telecommunication companies. They currently have a close eye on the planned takeover of mobile services firm Orange Austria by competitor 3. The company plans to sell low-cost affiliate Yesss to market leader Telekom Austria (TA) as part of the deal. TA’s market share would reach almost 50 per cent if BWB experts give the green light.

The Austrian government coalition of Social Democrats (SPÖ) and People’s Party (ÖVP) plan to expand BWB’s authority. The organisation could soon be allowed to examine energy sector company-internal procedures which determine consumer prices to find out whether complaints about exorbitant electricity and gas charges are justified. Representatives of the industry fear a "comeback of price regulations through the back door" on the domestic energy products and services sector which was liberalised only in 2001.

SPÖ and ÖVP put the planned changes of the law on hold as the parties put their main attention on finalising their 26.5-billion-Euro budget consolidation package. If the parliament passes a reform of competition laws, BWB could issue considerable fines on people for making false statements and attempts to hold back data discs, and other documents which could contain revealing information.

Vienna Times





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