ERIC VAN LEUVEN

Portugal 2021 | REAL ESTATE & CONSTRUCTION | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Eric Van Leuven, Executive Partner, Head of Portugal of Cushman & Wakefield, about the evolution of the firm, real estate sector growth in 2020, and priorities for the year ahead.

How has Cushman & Wakefield evolved since 2018?

2019 was our best year ever and the market's best year. Both 2018 and 2019 were both exceptional, with a great deal of activity in all sectors. The office market was booming, and many companies were renting more space. A number of companies, such as BNP Paribas, which is big in Portugal with its security services and back offices, Google, Microsoft, and many French companies, expanded their operations in Portugal. In the retail arena, we saw more selective expansion and many FB businesses, so there was extensive expansion mainly on high street than in shopping centers. However, the excellent shopping centers are still extremely popular with retailers and consumers. The logistics and industrial market was perhaps not quite as buoyant as we would have expected. We have been saying for a number of years that logistics should be an area for growth and that the footprint of logistics parks should expand because of e-commerce, but it is only happening now. Another area that saw a great deal of activity is the non-performing loan (NPL) portfolios from banks. We were and are still processing items from the last crisis. There is a large number of NPLs from Millennium, Caixa, Novo Banco, and Montepio, and many large portfolios are being sold to the more opportunistic investors who buy bulk and then sell piecemeal. As a result of all this, we had the best results in 2018 and 2019 and were the most profitable Cushman & Wakefield company in the world last year.

In 2020, Cushman & Wakefield was considered the best real estate consultant worldwide as well as the best national consultant in terms of transactions and real estate appraisals. What sets Cushman apart from its competitors?

There are three main global players, and the service offering is extremely similar; however, there is one significant difference in Portugal; one of our competitors does residential, and the other two do not. In terms of the service offering; therefore, it is extremely similar, and we compete head on with the same clients and the same business. What sets us apart is we are clearly the most experienced team. The leadership team in Portugal has been together for 15 years or more, and with one or two exceptions, the top 10 leaders have all been in business for 20 years, and they have all been with Cushman for 10, 15, or even 25 years. I have no doubt we have the most experienced team. Our competitors could argue we are more conservative and older, so we work hard to also bring in younger people from different backgrounds. I was extremely pleased with Euromoney ranking because it is based on votes by clients and peers, so companies cannot influence or manipulate the results. We won for best valuation, best research, best letting and selling, and best agent overall.

Despite COVID-19, is it accurate that the real estate sector grew by 36% in 2020 YoY? How would you evaluate the sector's performance?

In investment volume, which is the money put into real estate for income-producing real estate, the total figure at the end of August 2020 was up by around 30%. If we go into the details, the majority comprised two massive transactions that are together about EUR1.5 billion, namely the establishment of the Sierra Prime property fund. The Sonae Sierra fund put together four Portuguese assets and two Spanish assets into a fund that was then subscribed by Allianz Real Estate and Elo, a Finnish insurance company. That was EUR800 million all at one go. Then, there was the sale of Lagoas Park to Henderson Park for EUR421 million, which was an interesting transaction because it was in the middle of COVID-19, and it was a new investment in Portugal by a company that had never invested in Portugal before. The other one was a deal signed by a Portuguese consortium buying the Hotel Real chain for over EUR300 million. It is true these deals are outliers, and we predict that the end of the year will not be better than 2018 or 2019—it will likely be about EUR2.8 billion, so down from 2019. The office market is down by about 30% so far. The office market has a longstanding index called the Lisbon Prime Index (LPI), and it is currently 30% down YoY. There is no index for the retail market, though we have our own Cushman & Wakefield index that we monitor closely. It is down 60% YoY, so it is not true there is overall growth in 2020 versus 2019. There are pockets of growth, and there are specific reasons for that. Things are going reasonably well considering there were two months of inactivity and now it is slow. I am relieved by the results so far, as we are around 10% down on last year. 2019 was exceptional, and with the projects in the pipeline, we could get close to last year. I am actually more concerned about 2021.

What additional services does Cushman & Wakefield plan to offer in the medium term to diversify the company?

We are planning a soft launch for something we call Design & Build, which is closely related to project management. Our project management team manages works for clients. As project managers, we source the architects, construction, furniture, and all others. Design & Build is slightly different in the sense that many clients do not want to go through the process of deciding between three builders, two architects, or others because they just want to move in within three months and want an all-in-one timeframe, price, and design. We launched this as a separate company in October as a new service line.

What are your key priorities for the rest of the year and 2021?

For the rest of 2020, we will close the deals in sight because in general they take fairly long to materialize. We will likely not find any new big deals that are closeable by the end of the year. The next challenge is to create a pipeline for 2021, which we are doing. There were many imminent sales processes in March that subsequently stalled. Some have been back on the market and others not yet. There will likely be a fair amount of product on the market next year. In addition, there will be products from the crisis perhaps in 2022 because companies will go bust so there will be distressed sales. The hotels sector is an obvious one, because unless a company has a great deal of financial muscle, it is not easy to have no income for nine months to a year.