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JER Partners has been busy in Europe lately. The McLean, VA-based investment firm recently hired Chester Barnes as managing director of its asset management for the continent and opened a new office and brought on a new team in Prague. Clearly, management expects more expansion opportunities there. JER, the private equity arm of JE Robert Cos., a real estate investment firm that manages 10 private equity funds with almost $5 billion in equity capital, earlier this year opened offices in the Middle East and Latin America. Michal Pralle, the firm’s president and chief operating officer, spoke with GlobeSt.com about his firm’s international expansion plans.

GlobeSt.com: What is causing you to boost up your personnel in Europe as of late?

Pralle: Actually we’re boosting up staffing in general. Europe is clearly one area, but we’ve hired people in the US and Latin America, as well as Europe. This is consistent with our overall strategy of growing the business globally. Given the current situation in the financial markets, the uncertainty and the turmoil, it’s actually a great time to be building a business.

GlobeSt.com: Do you have a strategy in Europe that might be different than other parts of the world?

Pralle: All of the strategies in different parts of the world are different. Even within Europe they’re different. You’ve got developed Europe, emerging Europe, Central Europe and the investment strategies are quite different. The investment pieces for developed Europe is opportunistic and distressed. The investment pieces for Central Europe are more sound macroeconomic fundamentals, such as growing economies and middle classes that have a sustained and long-term demand for real estate.

GlobeSt.com: Hence the bulking up in Eastern Europe?

Pralle: Medium to long term, we think that Eastern European, or Central European as I refer to them, economies are not only where investors want to invest capital but also have very attractive prospects because of the underlying economic growth that is two to three times what we are experiencing in Western Europe or the US. The economies are pretty sound, and there is truly a lack of supply of high-quality real estate, whether you’re talking about retail, residential or office.

GlobeSt.com: So you’re looking across all property types in that region?

Pralle: The most attractive property types in general across Eastern Europe are probably retail and residential. That doesn’t mean there won’t be attractive office opportunities in Sofia, Bulgaria; or an attractive industrial park in Belgrade. There are too many markets here that are too vast to make one blanket statement. It’s more complicated than that.

GlobeSt.com: How is that region like other emerging economies you’re investing in?

Pralle: Central Europe is more like Latin America and probably more different from Asia, particularly China and India. There is a pretty good transparent business system, a good rule of law and Western-like institutions and regulations. Those markets in Central Europe are better understood, as is the case with Brazil and Mexico, than some of the emerging markets in Asia.

GlobeSt.com: Why have you waited to go into Asia?

Pralle: We do have aspirations to have an Asian platform, but we do not have an Asian platform to date because it’s a question of priorities. Our history of our business for many years has been in the US. We expanded into Europe a few years ago. We have a fund in Russia and are raising a fund in Latin America. It’s a question of being able to do everything all at once. Adding Asia and the development of an Asia platform, which is a complex challenge, would simply be having too much on the plate simultaneously. We’re expanding in Latin America and there are huge opportunities in the US with what’s happening in the markets. It’s just a question of doing things sequentially rather than doing too much at once. We are a 215-employee company with $9 billion of assets under management. We’re not a gigantic $90-billion, 2,000-employee real estate firm. So we have to be sensible about what we roll out. But there’s no question that long term, Asia is attractive, and we will have an Asian platform in the future.

GlobeSt.com: Is the global financial crisis making developing areas riskier than they were before?

Pralle: Traditionally, the emerging markets had domestic sources of liquidity. In fact, some of them were net exporters of capital like China and Russia. And because they’re growing, there’s a lot of liquidity. But so much has happened in the last 10 days. Up until then, most emerging markets were relatively unaffected by the credit crisis in the US. How that’s going to play out with what’s happening now is hard to assess. We don’t know today how what’s happening now in the US is going to play out itself. On the one hand, there’s a general flight to safety. On the other hand, the investment thesis for many emerging markets is still valid. It’s a completely different investment thesis from Western Europe and the US today. In the US and Western Europe, if you try to buy anything, you’re buying at a deep discount because liquidity is so scarce. In markets like China, India, Brazil, Poland and Czechoslovakia, the investment thesis is more about long-term growth and sound economic fundamentals.

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