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Commercial property market proving to be a real roller coaster ride

By Margaret Canning

The Northern Ireland commercial property market is going through a roller coaster ride of change.

Yesterday, James Wallace – the finance editor of commercial property news service CoStar – did us all a great service by revealing that Ulster Bank is readying itself to sell a portfolio of property in Ireland and Great Britain that's worth nearly £1bn.

That comes a few months after Nama off-loaded its Northern Ireland loans, again worth around £31bn, to the US firm Cerberus.

The latter is setting up a discreet office in Belfast which will not go out of its way to attract attention – and it's believed former Ulster Bank member of staff from its global restructuring group have been recruited to run it and hopefully oversee its first big sales.

Other commercial property agencies are hiring new agents as they foresee an increase in new business, partly due to the arrival of figures like Cerberus on the scene.

And BTW Shiells, one of the best-known names in property, both residential and commercial, is no more, with the residential side now known as Simon Brien Residential and the commercial side swallowed up by former owners Lambert Smith Hampton (LSH).

Eagle-eyed readers will already have spotted LSH properties on many sites around Belfast. And even aside from the big £1bn transactions by Ulster Bank and Cerberus, there is plenty to discuss. Marathon Asset Management in the US bought sky-scraping office and apartment block the Obel, and also dug deep to buy Cityside Retail Park and Shane Retail Park from Corbo Properties.

The latter retail deals also had a knock-on effect on Ulster Bank. In a previous transaction known as Project Button, Ulster Bank sold a package of loans which included Corbo Properties' borrowings.

The deals mean we'll be hearing much less of the individual players in the commercial property market, like Sam Morrison of Corbo and Aran Blackbourne of The Obel.

It's unlikely that we'll learn the individual names of anyone associated with Marathon Asset Finance, Cerberus – or any future buyers of Ulster Bank's assets. Marathon Asset Management recently declined to comment on its Belfast acquisitions. An era of anonymity awaits.

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