JSE real estate giants launch conquest into Eastern Europe property gold mine
Many South African real estate companies have flooded Eastern Europe over the past couple of years, attracted to lower costs of development, cheaper debt and growing economies.GDP growth in the region is higher than in South Africa, and surpasses growth in developed markets. Eastern Europeans are also being exposed to certain retail brands for the first time and are enjoying strong wage and employment growth.About 10 JSE-listed property companies are based in the region or have some kind of exposure to it, be it through a shareholding in an offshore company or through owning property directly.The surge of interest began with property group New Europe Property Investments. It was started by Romanian Victor Semionov and South African Martin Slabbert, who have since moved on and started Prime Kapital - now developing properties and investing in Central and Eastern Europe.The company quickly became the largest owner of shopping centres in Romania. It listed on the London AIM in 2007 and the JSE in 2009.Some Nepi founders were part of South Africa's Resilient property group that went on to form Rockcastle Global Real Estate. Resilient owns properties directly in Poland and other Eastern European nations and has stakes in other property companies.There is market talk that Nepi will consider merging with Rockcastle with the resultant entity set to become an Eastern European real estate powerhouse.Nepi, which has a market capitalisation of R52-billion, recently bought a shopping centre in the Czech Republic. Rockcastle, worth about R33-billion, also has a retail centre there.Resilient recently created Greenbay Properties, which made its JSE debut in June, raising a substantial R4-billion. Greenbay's initial plan is to invest in listed European property funds and distressed real estate assets.CEO Stephen Delport has said Greenbay will be highly opportunistic and has already spent more than a year looking at various opportunities in Eastern Europe.Outside the Resilient stable the most notable investment by a South African group into Eastern Europe this year was by Redefine Properties. It beat more than 10 bidders, including Rockcastle, to buy a portfolio of retail and office properties with its initial investment in Poland.The €1.2-billion (about R19-billion) property portfolio is now owned and managed by Echo Polska Properties which Redefine established after the deal, which was the largest in Polish real estate history.Ron Klipin, a money manager at Cratos Capital, said Redefine's move into Poland made investment sense, as did the decision by EPP to list on the JSE. "Poland offers strong GDP growth, even if this may be slowing," he said.Redefine has also established relationships with Polish property companies Griffin Real Estate and Echo Investment, a developer that has a significant stake in EPP. Griffin is Echo Investment's major shareholder. The idea is that Redefine will benefit from Echo Investment's strong development pipeline across Poland.Other South African property funds with interests in Eastern or Central Europe include Hyprop Investments, which has bought malls in Serbia and Montenegro, and Tower Property Fund which owns office and retail assets in Croatia.Accelerate Property Fund in April announced a R2.3-billion property deal that includes retail assets in Austria and Slovakia.