EUROPE NEWS: Comeback king

To some, Paul Whight is a pioneer of UK retail parks, so when he decides to focus his efforts on raising a British retail park fund, people tend to take notice.

The property entrepreneur developed his first retail warehouse asset in 1983, followed a year later by a retail park development, at a time when few had considered the concept as an institutional sector within the property asset class.

By 1989, Whight had launched retail park developer Grantchester Holdings, taking it public on the London Stock Exchange seven years later. That company was sold to listed property firm Hammerson for £190 million in 2002.

Paul Whight

Whight's attempt to raise a UK retail park fund in today's environment though is a clear sign that the sector represents a good buying opportunity. But Whight isn't the only one to be investing.

JP Morgan Asset Management, AREA Property Partners and Orchard Street Investment Management are just three opportunity fund managers who have made recent acquisitions in the sector.

In April, AREA Property Partners acquired £50 million (€56 million; $73 million) of newly subscribed units in the Junction Unit Trust, which owns a large portfolio of retail parks. Experts explain that retail park properties appear not to have been as hard hit as the UK high street, with less insolvencies.

For his part, Whight has been more active in Continental Europe for the past decade. He formed Pradera Asset Management in a bid to take his UK retail park concept to mainland Europe and he remains chairman of the company.

At Pradera, he built up a lot of experience in raising third-party funds. Near the start of the decade, the firm launched its first European retail fund targeting out-of-town properties in the Eurozone with an emphasis on Italy, Spain, France and Greece.

A follow-up vehicle in 2006 also focused on Southern Europe. In the same year, the firm launched a Central and Eastern European fund and entered into a deal in Istanbul on behalf of a separate client account. More recently, Pradera launched a China retail vehicle.

Whight's new UK retail park vehicle will not be launched by Pradera though, but via Cadena Holdings, a pooled family interests firm that he launched in 2003. It was established to develop and invest in the UK and Spain.

Whight and two team members recently appointed to Cadena will try to raise £150 million (€177 million; $244 million) of equity for the vehicle called the Cadena Retail Estate Fund. Neil Varnham, a veteran retail fund manager from London-based Henderson Global Investors, has joined as fund manager. Richard Gore is property director, having also joined from Henderson.

One sector Cadena has already entered is student accommodation in the Spanish university town Alcala de Henares. The company also owns a data centre in Hampshire, in the South of England, and a retail development site in Chelmsford, in the South East of England.

PERE's edit team last caught up with Whight in April at INREV's annual conference in Athens. The ponytail haircut he was famed for during his most prolific days of UK retail park buying has gone, but apparently his thirst for making money out of such assets has not.