Friday, February 25, 2011

Interview: Mr. Richard Han, Managing Partner, Vestas Investment Management

Vestas Investment Management is a newly licensed Real Estate Fund management company authorized by the Financial Services Commission in September 2010.
In January, Vestas Investment Management announced that it has commenced capital raising for Vestas-Meritz Korea Real Estate Fund I . Vestas and its co-GP partner, Meritz Securities are participating for capital raising and fund targets country focused, core plus/value added and cyclical opportunities in the Seoul office sector. The Fund considers foreign pension fund/ fund of fund type investors with selective local pension fund investors with raising amount of USD 200~300 million.
Vestas is newly licensed Real Estate Fund management company authorized by Financial Services Commission (FSC) in September 2010. Key senior executives including Mr. Richard Han, Managing Partner, mostly joined from Macquarie Real Estate Korea (wholly owned subsidiary of Macquarie Bank) and other foreign private equity funds management company, where the team implemented global standard in investment, asset management, and divestment for past 10 years in Korea.
In an exclusive interview, Mr. Han speaks about the company and his plans for the year.

Could please you give us a background about Vestas Investment Management?
VIMC was established in 2010 and authorized by Financial Services Commission(FSC) as a licensed Real Estate Fund (“REF”) management company. Most key senior executives joined from Macquarie Real Estate Korea (a wholly owned subsidiary of Macquarie Bank) and other foreign private equity funds management companies with previous experience from several local and international groups such as JLL, Deloitte, and Daewoo.
I was managing director of both Macquarie Real Estate Korea and Ostara Korea Fund where I established a local team and built up 1.7 trillion won asset value of portfolio with current team. All transactions were high profile deals traded among major institutional investors and private equity funds such as RREEF, GE Real Estate, Lone Star, National Pension Service (NPS), and Samsung Life. Key transactions included acquisition of SK Securities, Tong-Yang Securities, and Daewoo Securities Building, Kukdong Building, ING Tower, Smart Plex, Pantech New HQ, and K1 REIT building and current team was leading the whole transactions from deal origination/execution, asset management and divestment.
Key milestones among these transactions include introducing first foreign managed CR REIT with underling asset of Kukdong building and two REIT establishment for National Pension Service where NPS invested 500 billion won of equity.
Vestas established global standard practice from previous foreign employers such as high standards of investment discipline, transparent governance, alignment of interest with investors, and reporting system. Capability to implement global standards for real estate investment and management is the key strength which would differentiate Vestas from other local fund managers.
A strong locally experienced real estate team with proven country and sector focused investment track records will be the key driver to source and execute private/off market transactions ahead of other players in the market and Vestas seek risk adjusted returns for our clients by carefully assessing potential investment opportunities and actively managing portfolios.

Where do you see the investment opportunities in Korea for 2011?
Korean real estate market is no longer an emerging market and it is now entering the stage of a stabilizing/mature market where investors should expect relatively lower return with low risk. Nevertheless, the market would look attractive to investors seeking stable yield with some capital appreciation.
We assess commercial office building sector to be still attractive (1) most liquid and (2) largest real estate holdings in a typical Korean company’s balance sheet. Some development type office take-out projects where developers having financial difficulties to continue and complete could be potential investment opportunities. Retail sectors could have opportunities where big discount store operators have an appetite for sale-lease back type divestment of existing assets for their continuous expansion requirements. Stable yield backed by quality credit of operators will provide investment opportunities.
When the market is tightening and investors have difficulty to find out attractive deals, that does not mean investors will not get attractive deals in the market. There are fund managers in the market who have hands-on experience and who have the capability to source and execute potential deals ahead of other players in the market. As long as investors assess the Korean real estate market to provide stable yield generation opportunities supported by strong fundamentals of the economy, the country should still be considered for future investment allocation.

How do you compare Korea with Japan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore? Why should foreign investors invest into Korea?
As just mentioned earlier, even when the Korean real estate market is tightening and therefore can’t enjoy high returns as was the case of 3~5 years ago, Korea still has its competitiveness compared with other Asian countries. I would like to limit my comments to the commercial office building sector.
First, fundamentals of Korean economy are strong and stable compared with other Asian countries with constant 4~5% GDP growth even after the global financial crisis. Second, many investors always consider Japan or China first in Asian Market in terms of capital allocation mainly based upon market volume with some other factors. In fact, China is still a growing market but it is also understood that investors should not ignore transparency/consistency in government policy and potential bubbles. Although all the investment environment of Japan might be more open to foreign investors and we see a lot bigger transaction volumes compared to other Asian countries, current slow economic situation would not make it easy to justify any investment commitment. In that sense, Korea has a very transparent investment environment with predictable/ stable income generating asset pools, although the target return is getting lower. Third, even though many investors are concerned about vacancies due to scheduled increasing supplies in Seoul market, this could generate buying opportunities in return as there could be pressured sellers. Historically, Seoul office market vacancy has been so low and stable and even when vacancy increases due to increasing supply, we don’t expect to see dramatically rising high vacancies like 20%~30% as some other Asian countries experienced before. In the case of total occupancy cost, Seoul grade A office still ranks lower than other major cities such as Tokyo and Hong Kong.
To conclude, I would like to say that as long as fund managers are more creative and more proactive ahead of other players based on hands-on local experience, there are good investment opportunities where superior risk-adjusted returns could be achieved. In particular, if investors are interested in stable yield generation with some capital appreciation, the Seoul office market is still attractive to investors.

Why are there only two Korean country-specific funds so far in Korea?
Although there are quite a few Pan-Asia regional type foreign managed funds, there are only two country focused private equity fund managed by foreign managers in the market. When most Pan Asia funds were raised, I understand Korea always has had relatively lower weighting in terms of capital allocation and fund managers did not have interest to launch country focused funds.
Having said that, if you look into Korean real estate market, when the market was open to foreign investors in late 1990s after the Asian financial crisis, real estate investment market grew substantially and now we see active investment grade /institutionalized transactions. In addition, based upon many transactions led by foreign investors, global standard practice is now quite common in Korea.
Even if many regional funds could still cover Korea for future investment, it could be more effective to have country focused fund managers to implement transparent and sophisticated investment management when real estate investment business anyway should be locally driven in various aspects. Many pan Asian type regional funds also happened to reduce or shut down their presence and operation in Korea recently due to restructuring after the recent financial crisis and it could be a good opportunity for investors to consider country focused funds and enter the Korean market.
In particular, when selective local fund managers now have hands-on experience with proven track record and when these fund managers can implement global standards for investment and management, we should see more private equity fund type business opportunities in Korea.

Why is Vestas trying to introduce a private equity fund business model in Korea (targeting not only foreign LPs but also local LPs) when most local fund managers just raise capital from local investors on a project basis when the deal is secured?
Many local fund managers know private equity fund business model is quite effective and competitive because fund managers can secure certain deal ahead of other players when there is committed capital from investors. Nevertheless, most local fund managers didn’t explore this type of business model for several reasons. First, local investors don’t prefer to commit in the blind pool type private equity fund and therefore local fund managers have not explored this business model with local investors. Second, most local fund managers do not have experience working with local or foreign investors in the form of private equity business model, either.
As far as local investors are concerned, it is a matter of how fund manager could give comfort to them in relation with investment decision making process when local investors are not used to giving discretion for investment decision to fund manager in the blind type fund. Vestas has some creative ideas to resolve this with potential local investors and that is why Vestas would like to challenge local investors’ commitment into private equity fund.
In addition, local investors would be more serious in this type of blind pool private equity fund if they see credible foreign LPs committed in the fund. We also understand many local institutional investors have ever increasing appetite and need to outsource their funds management to third parties as is the case in many developed countries in line with increasing demand for alternative investment (in particular real estate) allocation. Many institutional investors realize they cannot manage their portfolio in house with limited specialized professionals forever.
Vestas have built up strong global standard practice know-how to manage private equity fund business. In that sense, we are ready and open to any local or foreign potential investors for potential private equity fund management business opportunities in Korea. We should challenge more opportunities to introduce foreign investors and local investors into this type of business structure which could be mutually complementary and beneficial to local and foreign investors.