Vernon and Gunne: The duo behind Irish property’s €1.34 billion deal

Sale of Green Reit puts businessmen in line for yet another multimillion euro payday

Stephen Vernon (left) and Pat Gunne, at the Listing of Green REIT plc on the Irish Stock Exchange, in Dublin in 2013. File photograph: Eric Luke/ The Irish Times

Stephen Vernon (left) and Pat Gunne, at the Listing of Green REIT plc on the Irish Stock Exchange, in Dublin in 2013. File photograph: Eric Luke/ The Irish Times

 

Having just pulled off one of the largest property deals in the history of the Irish market with an agreement to sell Green Reit to UK-headquartered Henderson Park Capital for €1.34 billion, Stephen Vernon and Pat Gunne have made waves in the property world and beyond yet again.

While the company’s chairman, Gary Kennedy, said last April the decision to sell was being driven by the “persistent structural discount” of Green Reit’s share price to its net asset value per share, industry players and observers alike wondered if Vernon and Gunne were simply calling the top of the commercial property market.

Others speculated that the Green Reit founders had merely taken the company as far as they could usefully take it given the constraints on loan to value ratios imposed by the Reit structure.

Only three years ago, Vernon’s Green Property effectively called time on its involvement in retail

With any significant growth of Green’s portfolio necessitating a potential cash call from a shareholder base already hungry for dividend income, might Vernon and Gunne be seeking fresh opportunities elsewhere?

Whatever intentions lie ahead, both men are now set to benefit almost immediately from the sale of Green Reit thanks to the combined €55.1 million value of their shares in the company, and as yet unquantified share in the €11 million performance fee that the investment management company they serve will receive if the deal completes by November.

Not to mention an additional premium or “golden handshake” industry sources believe the pair will be in line for.

Serious form

Vernon and Gunne could be said to have serious form when it comes to timing their arrivals and departures from the Irish commercial real estate market and the various sectors within it.

Indeed, the pair’s decision to establish Green Reit in 2013 just as commercial property values were beginning to recover from the precipitous 50 per cent fall they had suffered in the crash is just the most recent, albeit most spectacular example of Vernon and Gunne’s ability to gauge both the market cycle, and its evolution.

Only three years ago, Vernon’s Green Property effectively called time on its involvement in retail with its sale of the Blanchardstown Centre for €950 million to US private equity giant, Blackstone.

In 2018, Green Reit followed suit with its sale for €148 million of the adjoining Westend Retail Park to Deutsche Bank’s real estate investment arm, DWS.

While the sale of the Blanchardstown Centre in particular prompted speculation that Vernon was calling the top of the property market, he downplayed the suggestion, pointing instead to the growing challenge online shopping presented to physical retail.

Pat Gunne had built his family firm into the largest commercial property agency in Ireland

Recognising the potential returns to be made from enabling the migration of consumers from the High Street to the internet, Green Reit has been to the fore with its investment in facilities such as Horizon Logistics Park next to Dublin Airport.

Vernon and Gunne’s knowledge of, and expertise in the particular and the general of the Irish property market has been gleaned from decades at the coalface.

Prior to his latest incarnation as the co-founder and non-executive director of Green Reit, Stephen Vernon, for his part, continues to serve as the chairman of Green Property. Vernon had held the position of managing director of that company from 1993 until 2002, when he led a leveraged buyout of it in a transaction valued at around €1.85 billion.

Vernon’s move to acquire Green Property followed a period in which the company’s share price had, like Green Reit, been trading at a persistent discount to its net asset value per share. With the support of Merrill Lynch and Bank of Scotland, Vernon fended off competition from numerous rival bidders to buy Green Property out for just under €1 billion.

Having secured the company, he commenced a series of asset disposals and used the proceeds to repay his financiers. A chartered surveyor by profession, Vernon is believed to have made hundreds of millions of euro from his longstanding stewardship of Green Property.

London

Pat Gunne’s record in the Irish property industry dates back to 1997, when at the age of 25 he returned from London to take over the family business, Gunne Commercial, following the untimely death of his father, Fintan, at the age of 50.

In 2005, Gunne presided over the sale of the Gunne business to international property group, CB Richard Ellis (CBRE) for $24.6 million (€20 million). The Los Angeles-based group had already owned 10 per cent of the Gunne company prior to the deal.

Prior to the sale, Pat Gunne had built his family firm into the largest commercial property agency in Ireland with 105 people employed between its offices in Dublin and Belfast.

Gunne grew the business aggressively through the firm’s involvement in several of the biggest property deals during the boom. In the Republic CBRE Gunne handled the agreement to sell the former Jury’s hotel site in Ballsbridge to developer Sean Dunne for €260 million. In London, the agency was involved in the €1.13 billion acquisition of the Savoy Hotel Group by a consortium of Irish investors headed up by financier Derek Quinlan.

With their 70 per cent shareholding in CBRE Gunne, the Gunne family were the main beneficiaries of the sale of their business to CB Richard Ellis, while the firm’s seven executive directors shared the remaining 30 per cent.

CBRE didn’t acquire Gunne’s residential estate agency business as part of the deal.

But while he is highly regarded for his expertise in the commercial property market, Pat Gunne would be the first to admit that he got his timing wrong when it came to the purchase of his own home in Ballsbridge, Dublin 4.

Having sold his family’s former residence on Merrion Road for €4.4 million close to the peak of the boom in May 2006, Gunne stumped up a then eye-watering €13 million just weeks later for number 17 Ailesbury Road.

The price represented a premium of €2 million on the advised minimum value that had been set on the property – in need of substantial repair – prior to auction. Gunne acquired the house quietly prior to the expected public sale.

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