Creating Value in the Real Estate World

In my wanderings and discussions with clients and other friends in the real estate world, I hear many different plans from many different people. Many plans are of course brilliant and well executed; however, I do see a perennial fundamental flaw in many plans that I would like to talk about. Here is my thinking……

I believe that in just about every really promising real estate deal – or real estate platform – there is a party that “creates value.” Obviously this is more pronounced and obvious in a project that is architecturally and aesthetically beautiful and different or in a cutting edge project in a different location, but it is also true in the most mundane of transactions as well. There is someone that has brought some “value” to the deal or to the process. The trick in a good business plan (for a deal or a company) is to be that person on a consistent basis.

I don’t know if others look at things this way; however, I get a sense that typically lenders, fund managers, insurance companies, sovereign wealth funds, family offices and other providers of capital (collectively, “Capital Providers”) give this “value creation” away to developers, owners, sponsors and brokers (collectively, “Sponsor Parties”) without really thinking about this concept. Also, my sense is the Sponsor Parties sometimes go into business without thinking deeply about how they might set themselves up to really create value that they can bring to Capital Providers.

Consider what typically happens vis a vis the Capital Providers. Toby (a metaphor), who works for the Capital Provider sits in his/her office and waits for possible deals to roll in. Toby is a great marketer and knows how to create deal flow. He knows that the key rule is to get out and about with people, build relationships, and try to make deals work and do great and careful underwriting. But there is one thing Toby is not (typically) doing, which is “creating” the “value” in the deal. Instead, he is in the “reactive” seat, and waiting for the “proactive” Sponsor Parties to create the deals to be sent to Toby for evaluation.

Why is he doing that? I don’t think there is a good reason. I think it happens this way largely due to inertia, and the fact that that is just the way everyone typically does business. But, I think that there is really no reason why Toby can’t create deal value himself. Let me give an outline of an idea:

Let’s say you are the CEO of a Capital Provider (say, “Smith Capital”) which is a $1B opportunity private equity fund that invests in deals of all types in the U.S. Sponsor Parties solicit Smith Capital with deals it might invest in and Smith Capital analyzes hundreds of these deals every year, does solid underwriting, and then narrows them down to about twenty deals it tries to do, of which let’s say five actually close.

In all of these deals – alas – Smith Capital has competition from other Capital Providers. Maybe these other Capital Providers are more eager – or dumber – or whatever – so they offer better terms than Smith Capital is willing to offer so Smith Capital doesn’t get the deal or its pricing (and hence its risk/reward) gets worse. Of course this will likely end up being the case since the Sponsor Providers have provided the “value” that Smith Capital and its competition are bidding for.

How about instead you ask your acquisitions guy – Toby – to pick a specialty area to become a major expert in? And I don’t mean a big area that is in the typical real estate food groups (like retail, multifamily, etc.) but a much smaller niche, like, say, garages, golf courses, co-working space, or another much smaller niche — the thinking here being that the niche has to be small enough that Smith Capital can dominate it.

As an aside, the niche should be somewhat creative. For example, a purely geographic niche sounds interesting but doesn’t last very long. As soon as others realize a location is undervalued, the prices get bid up. Of course, the first player can do well, but usually it is very hard to be sure that when you get in on the ground floor in a geographic location whether the overall market will really rise or not; accordingly, the risk/reward is not necessarily easy to evaluate.

As a metaphor for this niche idea for Smith Capital and Toby, let’s pick parking garages as the example.

Now, what Toby does is the following: He reads everything possible about garages. He finds out who are the major players, costs, advantages, disadvantages, and little known facts (like what local fire departments say about different garage types). He has a gaggle of Google alerts from all sorts of angles on garages. He gets the garage trade publications. He tells everyone about it – both internally at Smith Capital – and externally too. He then ramps it up by going to garage conferences. He goes out and meets the owners and developers of garage companies. After just a few months Toby is Toby the Parking Garage Man! He knows everyone and everything. He has relationships. He has strong and coherent ideas about how to invest – including what to avoid — and is now able to apply this knowledge to create “value” in deals. He knows the REIT issues that pertain to garages – he knows the operational issues – he knows (personally) all the good operators – and most importantly he knows the risks.

His presence now is an upgrade to the “value” that Smith Capital can provide because third parties start thinking that if there is a garage as a significant portion of their deal then maybe Smith Capital should be called to be involved, as they could provide some “value’ due to the intellectual capital that Toby has developed pertaining to garages.

Maybe lenders will like Smith Capital in the deal, since lenders are more concerned nowadays than ever about the talent in the equity that they lend to. Indeed, possibly (dare I say), the lender might even recommend to the Sponsor Provider that Smith Capital would be a great co-investor in the deal due to its expertise. Maybe even the Sponsor Party (who usually struts around, since he holds the “value” cards) isn’t quite as cool anymore because Smith Capital can enhance the upside of the deal pertaining to the garage adjunct. Also, maybe Smith Capital has relationships that can be mined to help the garage part of the deal get better.

Eventually Smith Capital starts to be a major player in the garage space. They know everyone and everything. Everyone comes to them for advice and they are the first stop – and the last stop – for proposed deals that have garages in them.

To end the story, instead of Smith Capital giving away the value creation to the Sponsor, it is Smith Capital now creating at least part of the value and upside, which means that Smith Capital can negotiate much better terms with the Sponsor Party.

By the way, I know I directed this article at Capital Providers; however, that is just serendipitous, since my thinking is exactly the same for Sponsor Parties. In order to be able to demand good and strong terms, Sponsor Parties should do the exact same thing; namely, develop niche-type expertise that they can use to create value.

So I hope I have made my point here. To conclude:

If you are a Sponsor Party or a Capital Provider, I propose that the name of the game is figuring out where the value will be created in the real estate deals you are seeking, and then set yourself to really “proactively” create that value, rather than “reactively” wait for someone else to create it and bring it to you. And the way to do that is by using your assets – the brains of your team – to create intellectual capital in small-sized niches that you can own.