One of the firms that is a GlobeSt.com Thought Leader around the ICSC New York National conference next week is Auction.com. The firm is a big seller of retail real estate to a number of different buyers, and contrary to what people may think, they’re not just selling distressed real estate any more. More and more, the assets trading on the site are fully leased, strong-performing properties. The firm’s leadership is trying to get more business like that from traditional owners and operators looking to buy and sell shopping centers. Joe Cuomo, a commercial real estate auction executive at Auction.com talked about trends he sees in retail real estate auctions and his objectives at the show.
GlobeSt.com: Retail real estate is a larger part of the sectors you’re trading right now, is that correct?
Joe Cuomo: Yes, about 25% of what we have sold at auction over the past two years has been retail. The top property types that we sell are retail, office and multifamily. We’ve seen a huge shift away from selling distressed, non-performing notes to the sale of more real estate in both stabilized and opportunistic value-add retail properties. We’re also seeing much more Class A and B assets in Class A and B markets.
GlobeSt.com: What kind of shopping centers are you selling typically that are in those classes?
Cuomo: We’re selling a lot of grocery-anchored and neighborhood centers. We’re also seeing a lot of direct retail operators come into the space. For example, we sold a 185,000-square-foot anchored shopping center for LNR a couple months ago in Atlanta that was 95% occupied. We also just sold a mall for GGP and a grocery-anchored center for EDENS both at prices higher than they had anticipated. We’re pretty much in the large power center and grocery-anchored space. Buyers are now showing up a lot more to our online auction events, giving large institutions the ability to play on the buy and sell side and bring more to the platform. It gives us the ability to put the better assets out there, knowing the right players will participate.
GlobeSt.com: Was there an education process in getting big firms like GGP and EDENS on board with your program? How did that come about?
Cuomo: We understand that technology can sometimes scare folks, and that the real estate industry has done business one way, successfully forever. Billions of dollars of real estate has transacted over the years through a traditional process. It takes time. We were fortunate that the special servicers recognize the value we bring to the table and that it was a great platform for them. But for the operators and developers, it’s been a slow, education process in terms of showing them what we can bring to the table, even the ability to manage a transaction, run a global marketing campaign, conduct an auction and then close a deal in 75 days. The traditional process can be three, six or nine months, with a lot of start/stops and uncertainty. Auction.com is probably the only platform that I know of where you’re going to get the exposure that we bring with a marketing budget that exposes an asset locally, nationally and globally and then be able to close a deal in 30 – 45 days. We obviously bring a lot to the table in terms of our value proposition. It just takes a little bit of time with these folks. In addition, we can offer one-off auctions for our larger clients. We have a $100-million hotel going to bid next year in a single asset auction, showing we can auction a larger asset for a larger client. Part of our success working with servicers and banks has lead to some people to think we just work with distressed assets and distressed sellers. We’re not just selling non-performing notes any more. We’re selling real estate, whether it be a value-add opportunistic deal or a stabilized, quality retail center.
GlobeSt.com: So it’s just the case that these larger developers having an asset in an area where they don’t have a lot of brokerage connections?
Cuomo: No, not necessarily. Every piece of real estate that we sell requires a licensed broker. We are not brokers. As an example, the EDENS deal was sourced through a broker. Unlike other firms out there, we work directly with brokers and highly encourage brokers to take advantage of our platform. Since our platform is national and international, you’re able to offer assets almost anywhere to almost anyone from all parts of the world. What we’re able to do is really extract someone’s best and final number. For buyers it’s transparent, they know it’s a market trade, that they are bidding against other buyers, and the best price wins. We’re trying to take the platform mainstream and work with the companies that own and manage real estate, but if they’re not in disposition mode, they might not have a property every week or every month to sell. But when a seller is ready to unload an asset, we can bring it to a greater market.
GlobeSt.com: Are you seeing a shift in the type of buyer looking for stabilized retail as opposed to distressed?
Cuomo: One by one the institutions are coming on board. But in the instances where they are not comfortable with the platform, we have the marketing reach to find solid performing buyers either locally, nationally or internationally. There are entrepreneurs that fly under the radar and aren’t well known or big names. We provide them with an equal opportunity through our transparency to bid on any asset on our platform. A lot of our buyers feel comfortable using us versus a traditional process, as there a lot of things that can happen in the conventional process with how deals are steered, and it isn’t necessarily the best price wins. We’re seeing buyers that might not have been able to play with the way the local markets tend to work with the brokers and the sellers sometimes. It’s hard for someone externally to break into some of those markets and buy a stabilized, quality asset. But we’re starting to get more folks on board from the institutional side because of the nature of the sellers we have. We have sold over $2 billion of real property this year. Because of that shift, a lot of investors in the marketplace, institutional and private, realize that if they want to see a significant pipeline of product, they are going to have to get comfortable with the process and start participating. We offer financing on our platform at times. We’re starting to replicate everything a conventional process offers but instead of asking for, having those bids negotiated in the “back room”, we’re driving everyone to a transparent competitive online auction arena.
GlobeSt.com: You work with some retailers directly to dispose of their real estate. How is that process going?
Cuomo: It is going well. One of our focuses for 2012 was to work more with corporate users, with a big push to talk to retail and industrial operators to help sell their assets. Retail is an industry that is always adjusting, whether it be footprint of their space, acquiring or being acquired, and outright downsizing. For us, we can either source a deal directly through the owners, or indirectly through a broker. In the large retail space, we have auctioned deals for Albertsons, Home Depot and Target, and in the smaller space have auctioned multiple bank, phone, gas and other single tenant retail outlets. We are starting to see some of the larger corporate firms come in, but so far they have been using us to help sell their vacant assets. These corporate clients have not been selling occupied working assets that they’re in through us yet. That will continue to be a big push for us in 2013. The buyers for these types of assets are different. As an example of our marketing reach, we sold a vacant building in Houston this year for a corporate user. It did not receive a lot of activity locally, as this same seller had already sold a similar building recently, tapping out the local users. Given our huge marketing reach, we were able to bring in an investor from California to compete against two operators out of Las Vegas.
GlobeSt.com: At the ICSC New York show in particular what are your objectives?
Cuomo: We want to be at the same events as owners, operators and brokers, and especially buyers on our platform. We’ve shifted our focus internally now that we’ve made our platform available to the entire market, not just our financial institution sellers. A lot of folks who looked at our platform on the buy side, might be great sellers. That’s the message we are trying to get out. That this is a great platform to transact real estate. Buyers become sellers and sellers become buyers. We’re actually meeting with a lot of firms who have bought on our platform and are expressing interest how they can go about selling in 2013. We’re going to have a full calendar meeting with folks and walking the floor. This conference will also be about education and de-mystifying the auction process, so we are going to a lot of meetings with first time users while also making ourselves available to help answer any and all questions.