EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalists: Stephen Vernon, Green Property
Property veteran recently sold Blanchardstown centre
Stephen Vernon, Green Property: “Our business model is not unique but it is unusual as it has a high degree of self-discipline.” Photograph: Richie Stokes
Stephen has been the chairman of all the companies trading as Green Property since 2002. Before this, he was managing director of Green Property Plc. Under Stephen’s stewardship, Green Property Plc’s market capitalisation grew from €9 million in 1993 to €1 billion in 2002 when he led a leveraged buyout of the company in a transaction worth €1.85 billion. The arrival of Pat Gunne in 2008 heralded a partnership which led to a successful bank work-out business and subsequently Green REIT.
This investment vehicle has a market cap close to €1 billion and owns over €1.2 billion of commercial real estate, with an annual rent roll of €65 million.
Describe your business model:
Our business model is not unique but it is unusual as it has a high degree of self-discipline. We operate only in the UK and Ireland with a strict limitation to mainstream commercial real estate. We have never succumbed to the obvious temptations of extending our activities geographically, or becoming involved with asset types that appear similar, but in reality are not, such as housing or leisure.
What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?
In 2001, I realised our achievements were simply not being recognised by the stock market, with the company traded at a 40 per cent discount to its net asset value and increasingly vulnerable to hostile approaches. I overcame this by organising backing and making a bid for the company, which we eventually acquired for a little under €2 billion following an auction process.
What moment/deal would you cite as the “game changer” or turning point for the company?
This was when I was able to achieve a financing package that would allow us to construct the first phase of the Blanchardstown Centre. This was achieved by a strengthened balance sheet on foot of a rights issue at the end of 1993 and signing preleasing agreements with anchor tenants in early 1994. Post 2008, the real game changer was being joined by Pat Gunne, who orchestrated the work-out business that sustained the company through the crash and without whom I would not have entertained the idea of Green REIT.
What was the worst piece of advice you received when starting out?
When I took over Green in 1993, many professional real estate sources in Dublin suggested the way to turn the company around was to sell the lands at Blanchardstown on the basis there would never be a shopping centre there.
What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?
The hardest thing was to accept I had climbed the wrong mountain by working in private practice since leaving university and becoming managing partner of one of the major central London chartered surveying practices. I decided to leave at the age of 43 and chance my arm in a different business, as an investor/developer.
What was your biggest business mistake?
My biggest mistake was undoubtedly not to pursue the acquisition of what was then called the PYE site in Dundrum, which eventually became the Dundrum Shopping Centre. At the time receivers were appointed and the site was sold, we had recently completed and leased Blanchardstown and could easily have bought the site with little more than loose change. However, we stood back, feeling that the site was an awkward shape!
Where would you like your business to be in three years?
Over the next three years the activities of Green Property in Ireland will be discontinued on foot of the sales of the major assets, such as Blanchardstown. This is in order to concentrate on the activities of Green REIT. The UK business of Green is currently also in wind-up mode, however the real challenge for us is to re-enter the UK market in a different form. This is currently being planned.