Owning one’s own business comes with a certain amount of risk, but as many business owners will attest, seeing a business grow and succeed is incredibly rewarding. Unity Properties, a specialist investment company which specialises in syndicated investment into properties, mostly on behalf of private investors, has grown from a small start-up to a robust business since its inception in 2003. Managing director, Gary Gould, tells Asset Magazine that over the past 11 years, Unity Properties has put together over 60 property deals.
These grew progressively in value, and recent deals have been in the order of between R20 million and R45 million. The company’s current portfolio under management amounts to approximately R400 million.
There are four aspects to Unity Properties’ business – investment, development, administration and sales and leasing. Investment is done on behalf of investors, into commercial, industrial and retail properties that are either acquired and upgraded, or developed from scratch. The company’s management and sales and leasing divisions manage all the investors’ portfolio management, sales and leasing, but also undertake third party property projects under various levels of service agreements. There is a team of in-house property brokers to take care of sales and leasing on a day to day basis. Gould is a registered principal with the Estate Agency Affairs Board, so the company can legitimately let and manage property on behalf of investors. The development aspect is important as few deals take place without some form complication or opportunity, be it a rezoning, consolidation, subdivision or extensions of a property.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the business is turning an underperforming property around. “Our last few deals have focussed specifically on retail properties, particularly underperforming centres with high vacancies and poor tenant mixes. We have revamped the centres, improved the tenant mix and turned the centres around” Gould explains.
Four the most recent examples are:
Colony Shopping Centre in Hillcrest (5, 800m²): The two properties making up the current centre were acquired in 2009 for R35.3 million and had a 33% vacancy rate. R8 million was spent upgrading the centre, which is currently valued at R61 million. At the time of acquisition some of the major tenants such as Milady’s Woolworths, CAN and House of Coffees had relocated to a bigger centre. The buildings were outdated and overrun by vagrants who were using the car park as a casual labour pick-up point, intimidating shoppers.
Dube Village Mall, Inanda (7, 463m²): This convenience retail centre was acquired in 2012 for R25 million and had a 40% vacancy rate. R10 million was raised in equity and R7.5 million was spent on the upgrades; the centre is now worth R44 million.
Sandy Centre, Pinetown (3, 005m²): this convenience retail centre was acquired in 2012 for R24 million. Vacancies were at 0%. R7 million was spent on the upgrade; the centre is now worth R32 million.
Philani Valley Mall (11, 584m²): The two properties making up this convenience retail centre were acquired in 2012 for R40.5 million. There was a 20% vacancy rate at the time. The budgeted renovation spend is R12 million, and the estimated value on completion is R65 million.
Gould comments that of these, Dube Village Mall was particularly rewarding. Not only has the revamp resulted in an improved shopping centre which people in the community can use and enjoy, but it has also created several additional jobs and is providing investors an excellent return. It’s a win-win situation for all concerned. “This is something we would like to achieve more often,” he comments.
Unity Properties often partners with other companies or investors in property deals. One of these is Business Partners, which is a 26% shareholder in the Colony Shopping Centre. “I’ve worked with Business Partners since 2009 and we have always had a good working relationship. We’re currently working on a number of deals together and will continue to do business in the future,” Gould says.
He adds that while the company is currently Durban-based, ultimately he’d like Unity Properties to be a national player. “We’ve had to earn our stripes first, but good deals aren’t always easy to find so we are having to look further afield,” he says. Because he likes to have a hands-on approach and be able to visit properties regularly, expanding the business will mean making sure that all properties in the portfolio can still be managed and monitored in the same way. The company has grown rapidly in the past two years particularly, though, and has taken on more staff and created additional roles to fill its growing needs. If it continues to build on its current success, expansion will likely be just a matter of time.