by Richard Buckley, Editor, Business Eye

Last month we witnessed the sale of the iconic Metro Building in Belfast city centre as the office complex was purchased in excess of its £21 million asking price. The deal is one of the biggest Northern Ireland has seen this year and is a prime example of the great opportunity Belfast’s office sector presents to investors at present which is reflected in strong office take up performance during 2018.


The Metro Building is a landmark Grade A office building, which stands nine stories high in the city centre and includes two levels of underground parking. The property was originally developed in 2003 and is home to a number of high-profile tenants.

Given the nature and scale of the investment, completing commercial property deals can appear complex and successfully completing such a transaction requires a collaborative approach taking in expertise across the board – from the support of local property agents to individuals providing financial and tax advice. To help demonstrate what it takes to complete a deal of this nature, we speak to a number of the key players involved in the sale and acquisition of the Metro Building namely First Trust Bank who provided acquisition finance, business advisers BDO Northern Ireland, Lisney who acted as selling agent, and Tughans who provided legal advice.

Clare Stokes Corporate Acquisitions Manager, First Trust Bank

Clare Stokes has been with First Trust Bank since 2015 and now leads the bank’s property acquisition team, with the Bank providing funding to a number of local operators in both the residential and commercial property sectors.

Clare has ten years of experience in corporate banking and corporate finance advisory roles and is also a qualified chartered accountant. 

“While the sale of the Metro Building is one of our largest office property transactions in recent years, it comes after a strong year for the Bank in the commercial property sector as a whole. 

First Trust Bank initially became involved in the Metro Building transaction through an introduction by Nicky Finnieston at Lisney who was acting as the selling agent. While the Bank was introduced to the competitive tender process at a late stage, we were delighted to be selected by the purchaser as their chosen funder for this acquisition. We believe that our experience and expertise in relation to property lending helped tip the scales in our favour, as well as our strategic and collaborative approach to transactions of this nature. 

The Metro Building is defined by its prime location in Belfast’s central business district and because of this, it was subject to an incredibly competitive bidding process and the final price achieved was in excess of the original asking price. First Trust Bank was delighted to provide the finance to allow the purchaser to avail of this exciting office investment opportunity.

We believe that what also set our approach apart was the timeframe in which we were able to deliver our support. The transaction was delivered in an incredibly short timescale of less than six weeks which required an exceptional collaborative approach from all parties involved. We worked closely with Lisney, BDO NI and Tughans, acting on their advice and information to inform our due diligence, ensuring the most efficient experience for the purchaser. Everyone involved went the extra mile to make this unique, high calibre transaction happen. 

First Trust Bank is keen to continue to play a key role in Northern Ireland’s reenergised commercial property market by way of both financial support and expert advice. This transaction is reflective of our core agenda which is to support well located and high quality assets as part of a long-term funding partnership with the promoters. Our desire is not simply to offer transactional funding, but instead we strive to become an established long-term funding partner to each of our customers and in turn support the growth of Northern Ireland commercial property market.”

David McAleese Partner, Tughans

David McAleese is a partner at Tughans law firm, specialising in property finance and restructuring. David has been involved in property and corporate finance transactions and solvent and insolvent restructurings across Northern Ireland and England, acting for major lenders as well as significant property developers and investment funds.

We have a long-standing relationship with the buyer of the Metro Building having worked with them closely across a number of other assets in their portfolio. Due to the size and scale of the Metro Building transaction, they came to Tughans to avail of our extensive expertise, with a three-week turnaround period, the buyer wanted swift, commercially focused advice and we were delighted to support the transaction for First Trust Bank. 

While the Metro Building project was demanding, it was also incredibly rewarding. We worked hand in hand with the other parties involved, capitalising on the advantages gained through teamwork and joined-up thinking – with both the bank and the borrower together. By adopting such a collaborative approach, we help clients maximise the value of their assets – be it their property, people or reputation – to ensure that those assets are protected, and competitive advantage enhanced.

The local office market has been increasingly attractive to local and international investors in recent years. The recovery of market demand since the crash demonstrates the opportunities that now exist for both investors and developers. In this regard, our dedicated Real Estate team, which is the largest in Northern Ireland, continues to play a key role, along with our property finance team, in schemes such as the Soloist, River House and Bedford House to name but a few. 

The Real Estate team, headed up by David Jones, have been involved in almost all the student accommodation projects in Belfast over recent years, developing an unparalleled expertise in complex forward funding transactions, that is now leading into the rapidly growing build to rent sector.

The team’s multi-jurisdictional capabilities have also led to a significant amount of high value work in England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland, for both local NI and international clients over recent years. This experience has also proved invaluable for our clients in using structures that have never been used in NI before.

Whilst responding to change and developing new structures is essential, some fundamental principles remain constant. At Tughans our two main principles are – ‘people do business with people’ and – our service must exceed expectations. Building relationships with peers and other experts is therefore key to delivering deals like this successfully, with our focus firmly fixed on the commercial objectives of our clients.

John Young Advisory Director, Niall Brady, Senior Manager inWealth Management and Paul McCourt Tax Principal, BDO Northern Ireland

The acquisition of the Metro Building involved several members of BDO Northern Ireland’s specialised real estate team. John Young has been an Advisory Director at BDO Northern Ireland for over ten years and has over 25 years’ commercial experience across practice and industry. Niall Brady is a Senior Manager in the Wealth Management practice, specialising in property investment and has been with BDO Northern Ireland for over 15 years and Paul McCourt has been with the firm for 13 years and is a Principal in the Tax Department.

“The team at BDO Northern Ireland works with many large privately-owned property, global investors, SMEs and entrepreneurs. We guide clients when buying, selling, developing and asset managing property portfolios. As audit, tax, and consulting advisers, we aim to provide swift resolution to issues and challenges – from acquisitions and funding, to family business and succession matters as well as real estate tax and other incentives. Together, we aim to leverage that experience and provide customers with unique insight into the market conditions in Northern Ireland and further afield.

Our role within the acquisition of the Metro Building was to provide advice on funding, review the key property financials (including research on tenancy covenants) and advise on structuring the purchase in a tax efficient manner. We have been working with the Purchaser over the last five years on various transactions to provide advice and support across funding, opportunity appraisals and real estate tax and were naturally delighted to support them on this substantial transaction. 

We brought together a wide team of experts internally across our specialisms, including Tax, Wealth Management and Advisory, to work together and ensure a robust service to the client. Our team was involved from the Purchaser’s initial interest in the Metro Building, providing ongoing support and advice at each step of the process through to completion and this will continue in the ongoing management of the Purchaser’s wider portfolio of commercial assets.

Natural collaborators within our own business teams, we appreciate the requirement to work together with other professional services companies to deliver for our clients. In this case, we worked closely with both agents, Lisney and Osborne King, First Trust Bank as the agreed lender, and with Tughans the legal advisors. Our strong connections with all these professionals and detailed knowledge and experience with the Purchaser enabled a much more streamlined process, ensuring the swift completion of the acquisition as required by the seller’s timetable. 

The acquisition of the Metro Building has been one of the most significant office investments this year and the expertise and speed of delivery by all the professional firms involved has also made it one of the smoothest.”

Nicky Finnieston Director, Lisney

Nicky has been with Lisney since 2006 and after developing his strong credentials in Northern Ireland’s retail property market, was promoted to Director in 2013, taking overall responsibility for the firm’s investment department. Nicky has been involved in some of Northern Ireland’s largest investment deals including the recent sale of Obel 63 to Belfast Harbour.

“Lisney is the largest independent firm of commercial property consultants in Ireland and our Belfast office is staffed by a team of 30, specialising in office, retail, leisure and industrial property acquisition, disposal and investment. Over the last few years, we have focused on growing our credentials in the local investment market and I’m pleased to say this strategy is paying off having transacted over £55m of commercial property investment transactions in 2018 – roughly half of the total volumes for NI so far this year. I’m proud to say that Lisney has been instrumental in attracting investors to NI having transacted a number of maiden deals in the province for international investors including Tristan Capital Partners, Chenavari, Ellandi and Corum.

We had been involved in discussions with the Metro Building purchaser on previous sales and as an active investor in the local market, we included them on the targeted marketing campaign for Metro, alongside national and international property companies and investment funds. We have a strong connection with the site having acted for the vendor when it was bought originally, agreeing the first lettings, and managing the building itself. When the previous owner made the decision to market the building for sale, we joined forces with Osborne King as joint agents.

We worked closely with Osborne King throughout the process, providing detailed advice to the vendor on values and sale strategy, co-ordinating our approach to the marketing, viewings, negotiations and closing date. Communication was imperative to this, and once the sale was agreed, we were in contact with First Trust Bank, BDO NI and Tughans, assisting them in their pre-purchase due diligence.

There is a positive narrative around prime office space in Belfast, with strong occupier demand and significant rental growth in recent years. The commercial property market in Belfast has seen prime rents move from £15 per sq. ft to £21.50 over recent years, and with a number of office schemes in the pipeline where rental expectations will be upwards of £23 per sq. ft. 

As the largest commercial property investment deal so far in 2018, the sale of the Metro Building reflects the strong appetite for investment in local office space not only from indigenous investors, but from national and international property companies and investment funds. It also acts a useful benchmark for the industry in terms of pricing for similar assets given the lack of supply of prime office investment product in the last number of years.”

Business Eye logo

John Young, Clare Stokes, Nicky Finnieston & David McAleese

Advertisement

Advertise in Business Eye

Receive Monthly Magazine

Choose Printed or Online Edition

Subscribe to Business Eye Magazine Subscribe Today