Blog Archives

Backleasing, Backsliding, Boom or Bust

images (1)

Cell-C-tower

Cell C, South Africa’s third Cellular operator is now a tenant in 960 towers that they used to own! Huh? It’s true, it’s called a sale-leaseback or backleasing and that’s an investment that may interest you.

American Tower Corporation purchased, through its South African subsidiary Helios, 329 more telecommunications towers from Cell C for R965 million bringing the total to 960. American Tower will is  acquiring up to 1,800 additional towers currently under construction..

Cell C is now an anchor tenant on each of the towers purchased, and its relationship with American Tower is  enabling it to further enhance the quality and coverage of its cellular network.

So what exactly is a sale-leaseback when it’s at home in front of the fire? A sale leaseback option allows a company to sell its assets and lease them back simultaneously. This can be beneficial for businesses that are in need of an inflow of capital.

This practice isn’t new at all. In France it’s been popular for over thirty years. In other Western economies it’s widespread and its trends generally flow from the US.

Originally, sale and leaseback transactions were only applied to tangible assets, such as property, plant, machinery and equipment. However, since the mid–1990’s, its application has increasingly been extended to incorporeal property, including trademarks, patents, designs, copyright and know-how. When applied to intellectual property, the leaseback and associated rental payments are more correctly referred to as licence and royalties, respectively. But we’ll focus on leasebacks in property in this article.

download (3)Looking at world trends first: sale-leaseback’s in the US were at their highest in 2007 when $16.1 billion in sale-leaseback properties traded hands. Transactions have increased over the past 18 months. After hitting a low of $3.7 billion in 2009, nearly $4 billion in sales closed last year and another $2.6 billion had occurred this year so far.

In the US a set of rules was set up to guide such transactions by the Financial Accounting Standards Board in 2003. Crafted after the Enron disaster to force most off-balance-sheet financing back onto the books, these rules are expected to encourage many companies to convert, once popular, but now discredited, “synthetic leases” by which companies maintained control of the property while gaining tax benefits,  into more legitimate “true leases,” such as sale-leasebacks and net-leases.

Companies mainly used synthetic leases as a way to keep real estate debt off the balance sheet while reaping all the other benefits of owning real estate. (A synthetic lease is when the money to finance the asset is borrowed, and the lender takes a security interest against the asset, but has no further recourse against the borrower / operating company.)

There are instances in which prioritising the use of an asset is more important than wanting to own it. Usually in these situations liquidating assets would bring business operations to a standstill as the use of the asset is integral to the functionality of the enterprise.

Unlike a traditional mortgage, which often finances 70% to 80% of the property value, a sale-leaseback allows a company to get 100% of the value from the real estate.

Sale-Leasebacks can be constructed flexibly providing options to both seller and investor. Some examples would include offering a Joint Venture type involvement allowing the seller to share in a certain predetermined percentage capital growth gain in value, or structure buy-back options on certain pre-determined conditions. Investors can also provide themselves with certain down side protection.

Within this context one ought to consider the net-lease too, whereby a company finances a new location by finding third parties to buy the property and then leasing it from them. There is a surge in such transactions currently in Western Economies. It has been opinioned that this is partly because companies with weak credit ratings are finding it hard to get conventional financing and are increasingly turning to real estate as a source of cash.

However it has to be said that even solid companies with strong credit ratings are looking for ways to raise cash to retire debt and improve their financial ratios.  In fact, many of the biggest names in business — including Microsoft, and Wal-Mart have used leaseback over the years.images (7)

Bri-Anne Powell, investment consultant for Pam Golding Commercial in Gauteng is reported as saying “There are investors in the marketplace who have an appetite to purchase sale and leaseback properties, preferably industrial in nature, in visible, strategic locations. In terms of industrial property the areas of the Durban South, East Rand, Midrand and Centurion are favoured, and in regard to very large industrial properties it is preferred that these would comprise a main warehouse or factory which would be located near OR Tambo International Airport.”

Sale-leasebacks ought not to be a prospect for an investor who isn’t going to cope with the potential struggles of owning commercial real estate or an investee who can’t afford to loose his asset. If a company that’s leasing a property goes bankrupt, the court may not uphold the lease. So the’ buyer beware’!

The recipe to being a lucrative investor in sale-leasebacks is not just appropriate decision-making but to make use of one’s asset to maximum effect.  For the purchasing party to a sale-leaseback, they have acquired a property with potential for growth and a long term income flow from the lease. On the sale side of the transaction there is the liquidation of an unwanted or superfluous asset whilst retaining long term use of the same through a lease agreement.

Ruby Tuesday, Backleasing and Owning Your Own Real Estate

The well-worn pages on lease-verses-buy in business textbooks makes much of a meal of equipment and motor vehicles but leaves glaringly absent the application to real estate.  Perhaps the omission is the result of the specialised nature of real estate, which makes it difficult to provide simple illustration of principles.  This brings us to Ruby Tuesday. Huh?

 

Depending on your generation or where you live you may know that Ruby Tuesday was a song recorded by The Rolling Stones in 1966. The song, was a number-one hit in the United States and reached number three in the United Kingdom and five in South Africa.

 

But Ruby Tuesday is also an American multinational restaurant chain, named after the Rolling Stones hit,  that owns  and franchises the eponymous Ruby Tuesday eateries. While the name and concept of Ruby Tuesday was founded in 1972, the corporation was formed in 1996 as a reincorporation of Morrison Restaurants Inc. The centre of operations is in Maryville, Tennessee, and from there 800 sites are operated worldwide.

 

Going back a few years, analysts were asking if Ruby Tuesdays was the Canary in the Coal Mine with regards to the World Financial Crisis. Facing default on its loans back in 2008 the restaurant chain looked set to fall off its perch.  Then began a programme of sale leasebacks which arguably saved the day. So what about sale leasebacks? Should companies  own their own real estate to sell and lease back in the first place?

 

Many companies have enormous sums tied up in commercial real estate that it owns and uses for its business, whether that’s warehouses, retail stores, head office or restaurants. In the US, department stores like Dillards and Sears own their own premises. Many restaurant chains like Ruby Tuesdays and Cracker Barrel own their own outlets. Zynga , the online gaming company recently acquired their headquarters building in San Francisco for over $200million. Google bought its new headquarters in New York in 2011 for nearly $2 billion. Microsoft and Wal-Mart also own a lot of their own property; however they are also examples of companies that have made much use of the sale leaseback.

 

Commercial real estate is considered a capital intensive asset and includes, among others: office buildings, retail centres and industrial warehouses. The properties are subject to a lease contract that generally has a base rent, additional ‘rent’ covering the property’s operating costs like rates and maintenance, a term of three to ten years with the option for renewal. The base rental rate varies depending on the credit of the tenant and the location and age of the building.

 

There is an argument that it doesn’t make economic and investment sense for a public operating company to sink large amounts of capital in its own real estate. In fact the argument is that a company should not own, or be in the business of leasing out its own real estate. Companies and in particular public companies should not be tying up capital in commercial real estate. Also, owning real estate may be considered a distraction from what should be the main focus of the business.

 

In fact since the advent of the World Financial Crisis, the companies that have invested in commercial real estate are being encouraged to sell these assets and do a sale/leaseback unless the assets are of a ‘strategic investment value.’ The argument is that capital tied up in real estate should be reinvested into the company’s core business where the rate of return is greater than in a real estate investment. And there lies the rub: The expected return from investing in an operating business is expected to be higher than a real estate investment.

 

So if what the investment firms’ have locked up in property isn’t producing a return other than that which is being saved on rent by owning the property, what is there to show for it? The amount saved is small in comparison to the lost capital investment.  It could be concluded then that to multiply returns there should be a disposal of real estate assets and a reinvestment of that capital in the business to produce growth.

 

Just a reminder as to what a sale-leaseback is:  a sale leaseback option allows a company to sell its assets and lease them back simultaneously. This can be beneficial for businesses that are in need of an inflow of capital.  Unlike a traditional mortgage, which often finances 70% to 80% of the property value, a sale-leaseback allows a company to get 100% of the value from the real estate.

 

Bringing us back to Ruby Tuesday. Although as a covert strategy, purists may argue that the accumulation of real estate as a “rainy day fund” is a somewhat archaic idea, one can’t help admire in hindsight Ruby Tuesday’s desire to own substantial amount of real estate for their locations as forward thinking.  As a ‘rainy day fund’ the idea is a fly in the ointment of the non-ownership school of thought.

 

Ruby Tuesday has announced plans to acquire Lime Fresh Mexican Grill. It has launched a new television advertising campaign and increased projected annualized cost savings to $40million. The company has also begun implementing its sale leaseback plan to raise $50million through the sale and leaseback of nearly thirty outlets ending the first quarter of 2013. By quarter’s end, the firm completed a sale-leaseback deal on 8 properties, resulting in nearly $18million in gross proceeds.

 

So who’s to say, in the midst of sound financial common sense, which is what one might call the school of thought that would have businesses own as little real estate as possible, we encounter a glaringly perfect example of benefits of having real estate assets like Ruby Tuesday. One point is that Ruby Tuesday may not have been able to dig itself out if it were not for sale leasebacks, a potential solution for many medium to large enterprises to acquire much needed business investment capital.

Then again to quote Ruby Tuesday’s own lyrics from a real estate asset point of view:

Don’t question why she needs to be so free
She’ll tell you it’s the only way to be
She just can’t be chained
To a life where nothing’s gained
And nothing’s lost
At such a cost

Brian Jones & Keith Richards 1967 © ABKCO Music Inc