ASIA NEWS: Abu Dhabi’s task master

After a real estate career spanning more than 40 years, Mark Burton, chief investment officer for real estate at sovereign wealth fund the Abu Dhabi Investment Council, has decided to call it a day.

The British chartered surveyor and banker is to retire from full-time work next month. “I’ll be 62 so I think it is a good moment to go,” he told PERE. Burton has been offered a number of roles as a non-executive director with various property companies and advisory roles on the investment committees of various funds. While he is yet to sign on, he said he expected to have decided his destiny by the time he boards the plane back to his native England next month.

If you were talking in a less than concise and crisp way, he would take you to task

Unamed fund manager

Burton’s career led him across Europe, Asia, the US and the Middle East. Starting as a surveyor in 1967 at London-based Cluttons, it was not until he joined the United Bank of Kuwait in 1982 that he became truly embroiled in real estate financing. “At UBK we did some of the first-ever CMBS deals,” he noted fondly, recounting underwriting debt at attractive margins before selling on the securitised loans for significant profits. “We were making quite a bit of money then,” he said.

Burton also worked for AXA Investment Managers and AIG Global Real Estate Investment, but was best known during the final decade of his career, first at the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, then at ADIA’s cousin sovereign wealth fund, the Abu Dhabi Investment Council. He was a chief investment officer at both. Burton also signed for Hermes after he left ADIA in 2007, but before he even walked through the doors, the then-newly formed ADIC made him an offer he couldn’t refuse to stay in the emirate. “Rupert Clarke [then Hermes head of property, now chief executive of Hermes Group] was wonderful about it,” he recalled.

Burton would not divulge details of investments while working for the two state-owned entities. According to PERE sources, however, he signed off numerous big ticket commitments to private equity real estate fund managers. “Mark had his favourites in fund management and he backed them big and hard,” one manager said. Among the firms to benefit from commitments led by Burton were LaSalle Investment Management and MGPA, which he invested in during his times at both ADIA and ADIC. While ADIC is understood to be an existing investor in private equity real estate funds, ADIA, which Burton first joined in 2001, has since evolved its strategy to depend less on third parties.

Fund managers who have previously worked with Burton describe him as “well-seasoned”, “constructive”, “fair”, “decisive”, “to the point” and “appreciative of clarity”. A no-nonsense communicator to his GPs, Burton’s portrayal is that of a man with no time for small talk and uncertainty, a point he admitted to: “I’m no good with people who pretend a certain knowledge when in fact they know absolutely squat.”

As one manager recalled: “If you were talking in a less than concise and crisp way, he would take you to task.”

At no stage of my career have I ever signed off on a transaction for which I don't continue to take full accountability

Mark Burton

This, Burton said, applied to everyone, including his emirati hosts, whom he described as “some of the most kind and courteous people I’ve ever worked with”. In response to whether he ever felt pressured into making decisions by his superiors at ADIA and ADIC, he said: “If you speak to anyone about me, you’ll have an impression of a man not hugely good at being told do something just for the sake of it. At no stage of my career have I ever signed off on a transaction for which I don’t continue to take full accountability.”

A replacement for Burton at ADIC, which invests both domestically and internationally, was yet to be announced at press time, but if his peers’ comments are anything to go by, a more straight-talking man will be tough to find. As he said: “I abide by three main principles. One, time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted; two, check, double check and triple check; and three, keep it simple. When somebody comes to me with some hugely complicated piece of financing engineering, that’s probably not for me.”