The Appeal of Industrial Sale-leaseback Transactions
Benefits for both investors and tenants are driving demand
Reporting by Daniel Schmergel of LoopNet, featuring commentary from Gino Sabatini, Head of Investments at W. P. Carey
Original article posted in LoopNet on October 6, 2021
Let’s start with the foundation: if you’re unfamiliar with the term sale-leaseback, you should go here. For a more focused explanation relating to industrial properties, let’s turn to Erik Foster, principal with Avison Young and head of the firm’s industrial capital markets practice.
“A sale-leaseback is when a user of real estate who owns their premises chooses to monetize that real estate. They stay in [the property], occupy it for a long term and sell it to a third-party owner who becomes the landlord, and the occupier becomes a tenant,” Foster told LoopNet.
According to Foster, sale-leaseback transactions for industrial assets have been surging over the past several years, with interest in North American industrial properties emanating from across the world. “It’s truly become a global marketplace,” Foster said.
This interest in industrial real estate is neither new nor particularly surprising. As Foster noted, the sector has been experiencing record low vacancies amid historic levels of investment activity. And these factors, which have intensified during the pandemic, have created what Foster described as “a very exuberant investment atmosphere.”
And industrial users are increasingly taking note of this enthusiasm.
Historically, industrial users have been more apt to own their facilities than their office or retail counterparts. Where most office and retail properties are typically developed with the expectation that multiple tenants will occupy the property, some types of industrial properties are more commonly utilized by a single user. Moreover, industrial properties are often heavily customized to meet the manufacturing or specialized logistical requirements of a particular business.
But industrial users are beginning to realize that they may be able to possess their proverbial cake and consume it too. “Industrial users are finding that they can reap the rewards of the sale of their building at record pricing, but still maintain occupancy and the use, so nothing really changes for them,” Foster said.
Of course, few things in commercial real estate are without caveats. To gain a better understanding of the industrial sale-leaseback phenomenon, LoopNet spoke with Foster — as well as Gino Sabatini, head of investments and managing director of W. P. Carey — and they walked us through the attributes and challenges of this process for both users and investors.
An Opportunity for Industrial Users to Acquire Capital and Flexibility
According to Foster, for the industrial user, most of the advantages of a sale-leaseback transaction can be reduced to two concepts: working capital and flexibility.
Foster noted that most industrial users that own their property have some kind of financing tied to the building. Perhaps they have a loan that represents 50%, or even 60% or 70% of the building’s appraised value. This loan provides them with operating capital to reinvest into the business — for the purchase of equipment or materials, for instance.
Through a sale-leaseback transaction, a user can derive 100% of the value of their property, and reallocate that capital to other aspects of their business. Depending on the company’s accounting structure, this could vastly improve their balance sheet. “You can pay down debt, you can reinvest into your business,” Foster said.
Meanwhile, the company in question retains use of the asset. The user “gets a ton of capital out of the real estate and continues to use [the real estate] the way they always have,” Foster added. The industrial user also enhances their flexibility in the process, trading their real estate asset for “a leasehold obligation. It’s not an illiquid asset,” Foster said.
Between record-setting industrial investment activity and equally historic low interest rates, this can seem like the ideal moment for industrial users to relinquish ownership of their facilities. “W.P. Carey, and most other sale-leaseback and net-lease buyers, operate on a spread over interest rates,” Sabatini said. This means that as interest rates potentially rise in the near(ish) future, cap rates could climb alongside them.
Currently, Sabatini said that cap rates range from 4% to 7%, depending on the location and nature of the facility (more on that in a moment). Foster said that he was even “hearing about sub-3% cap rates on the coasts.”
All of these factors may make an industrial sale-leaseback transaction seem like a “best of both worlds” scenario for the user, but it’s not quite that simple. For one thing, as most industrial users are typically real estate novices, they need to make sure they carefully consider all potential suitors. “The user needs to make sure that they don’t talk to the first person that knocks on the door,” Foster said.
According to Foster, taking the property through a traditional investment sales process generally garners terms that are more beneficial to the user — both for the sale and the subsequent lease. “When we go out and we make a market for assets like this, we’re amazed at how the terms continue to become better as we work through the process.
Foster mentioned that it’s also important to find the right investor match for each particular industrial user. “Sometimes this is their only location and its critical to the [tenant/seller], so having an owner who doesn’t have any forethought or care about the user is an issue too, so you’ve just got to find the right match.”
Industrial users also need to be comfortable with the control they’re surrendering by entering into a sale-leaseback transaction. For users that are accustomed to having sole authority over their premises, that adjustment could potentially be challenging. And, as frenetic as the industrial sales market is at the moment, there are reasons to believe that prices could continue to rise.
“With the shortages in the commodities markets and the difficulty in getting steel and lumber and other materials, there’s a bit of a governor on the amount of development that can happen. So, the supply of assets is also muted, which is continuing to drive scarcity pricing,” Foster said.
Ultimately, the viability of a sale-leaseback transaction for an industrial user will come down to that particular company’s priorities and whether they value working capital and flexibility over control and security.
For investors, the calculus is a bit more fraught with risk, but potentially equally rewarding.
Conducting Due Diligence on an Industrial Sale-Leaseback Opportunity
It’s probably fair to say that W.P. Carey has more experience in industrial sale-leasebacks than any other property owner; after all, that’s been the firm’s primary focus since it was founded in 1973.
As Sabatini described it, “Sale-leasebacks of industrial buildings for sub-investment grade companies is really our bread and butter.”
When LoopNet asked what made these investments so appealing to W.P. Carey, Sabatini explained, “The facilities are often very critical to the company that is doing the sale-leaseback, and that’s very important for us; because we’re a long-term holder and we want to own something that the company is planning on using for a long period of time.”
In an ideal scenario, Carey [Note: have requested that they change to Sabatini] said that W.P. Carey’s investment thesis is relatively simple. “We’re making a bet alongside the equity investors in that company that the company is going to be successful for a long period of time. If we’re correct, then we’ll collect rent for a 15- or 20-year primary lease term for starters, and potentially [execute] renewals as well.”
But what happens if they're wrong?
According to Sabatini, that depends largely on the market and asset in question. A highly customized property, one that will be challenging to adapt for a new tenant — such as a food or biotech manufacturing facility — represents a greater risk than a relatively generic property, like a last-mile fulfillment center. That risk expands in smaller markets and is somewhat ameliorated in larger markets.
In terms of how Sabatini approaches the due diligence process, he said that the first portion of his methodology involves elements that are fairly consistent across any real estate asset class or deal type. He advised that prospective investors commission an environmental phase I study (and a phase II study if the initial report reveals any areas for concern); have an engineer walk the property to appraise its structural integrity; and review the property survey and title.
“Make sure you’re purchasing a clean piece of real estate,” Sabatini said.
After that, you need to undertake what Sabatini says is often the more challenging facet of the process: reviewing the company who will first sell you the property and then become your tenant. Sabatini likens this phase of due diligence to the process credit organizations like Moody’s undertake when they’re rating companies.
“You try to understand the industry, the company’s position within it, as well as any threats to either the company or the industry,” he said. “You really need to dig into the credit and understand why the building is important to the company, and what the company’s financial prospects are in the short-term, the medium-term and the long-term.” Sabatini also said that it’s important to carefully review the company’s balance sheet. Specifically, you should assess their attitude towards leverage and how they have fared during downturns.
As this process illustrates, in many respects a sale-leaseback transaction isn’t a simple real estate deal; it’s more analogous to the creation of a (hopefully) long-term, mutually beneficial partnership.