For a man running one of Northern Ireland’s leading property companies, Nick Reid is remarkably unfazed by all frenzied tales of recessionand gloom in the sector.
The chief executive of William Ewart Properties accepts that there is little anyone can do about the global financial turmoil which has hogged the headlines in recent weeks. His task is to manage a way through the problems by taking care of the business elements he can control.
Of course he is in a better position to weather the economic storm than small property developers with large expensive land banks which they cannot develop to raise the revenue to pay back the banks.
William Ewart Properties has a portfolio of developments in Northern Ireland, the UK and Germany worth around £1bn and generating an annual income close to £50m a year.
In harsh times the emphasis for companies like Ewarts switches from development opportunities and capital growth to ensuring income growth. Mr Reid points out that in one of its assets, the Gyle Shopping Centre on the outskirts of Edinburgh, rental income has grown by about 20% since 2006 when the company bought the centre for £270m.
Other prize retail assets include three in London, all sited at important transit points. The Victoria Place shopping centre atop the Victoria mainline and underground railway stations sees more than 100m people passing through every year. It is a prime site for retailers.
The other sites at Fulham and Hammersmith attract a total footfall of more than 50m people annually.
“The benefit of those sites is that people have to go there to travel to other places. It is not a case of the retailers having to fight to attract them, they are there anyway. The retailers’ task is then to get those people to visit their outlets,” says Mr Reid.
It is little wonder then that there are few vacancies at those sites and low levels of rental debt.
Ewarts was formed in 2002 when Frank Boyd and Andrew Creighton paid £100m for Dunloe Ewart’s Northern Ireland and British properties. The two men also have their own burgeoning property interests — for example, the headquarters building for Ewarts at Linenhall Street was developed seperately by Mr Boyd.
The company also recently expanded into Germany where it has a portfolio of 10 properties. While other developers have looked further east for opportunities, Mr Reid sees Germany, with its 100m population and reputation as the economic powerhouse of Europe, as an ideal location for his company’s interests. Indeed, he reckons that any further European expansion will be within the German borders.
“We have had a steep learning curve on property acquisition and management in Germany and that is sufficient to be going on with,” he says. But the company has not forgotten its Belfast roots and two schemes are nearing completion in the Laganside area. He hopes to see tenants moving in at the end of next year.
One is a high-spec office building, the Soloist, at Lanyon Place near the Waterfront Hall which he says will bring a new level of design to the city. The design award went to a Norwegian architect after an international competition. Lanyon Towers is a 13 storey development with offices, bars, restaurants and apartments and it has been designed by a British-based architect.
Does he foresee difficulties in attracting tenants in the current difficult climate? “We already know there is quite a lot of interest in our office development and we are now at the stage where we can begin to turn that interest into real tenants.
“It has to be remembered that office space in Belfast costs around half of that in cities like Liverpool or Manchester and is much cheaper than in Dublin or London. If companies want to retrench then Belfast is a perfect location for them. Also there is the promise of financial sector jobs coming north from Dublin.”
The company also has a 25% stake in the Royal Exchange scheme on the eastern side of Royal Avenue in Belfast, a joint venture with IMG Real Estate Development, one of the largest companies of its kind in the world.
That is a long term project and the economic climate in five or 10 years could be much different. “You have got to take the long-term view in the property market. It is a cyclical market but Ewarts has a good reputation with its bankers and clients and that, we hope, will stand us in good stead.”
A law graduate and accountant, he also has wide experience in global sales with pharmaceutical company, Norbrook Laboratories — a firm he says not given the recognition in Northern Ireland that it deserves — he is hoping that his multi-skills will help keep Ewarts at the forefront of the property sector.