Tishman Speyer looking for entrance opportunities in Shenzhen and Guangzhou

Ryan Botjer, in charge of China operations for US-based developer Tishman Speyer, sees the mainland property market entering a mature phase despite the short-term cyclical downturn

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 May, 2015, 4:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 May, 2015, 4:00am

Fluent mandarin-speaker Ryan Botjer has been working in and out of China since the mid-1990s, when the real estate market just started in the country.

He joined Tishman Speyer in New York and helped the company establish its China operation in 2006.

Having seen the peaks and troughs elsewhere, Botjer says China is no exception to the real estate market's cyclical nature, but Tishman Speyer remains confident about strong demand in major top-tier cities where the company is operating in now and plans to expand further.

In the Chinese domestic market, as profit margins narrow, a lot of developers are restructuring their business and turning asset-light. They want to become China's Tishman Speyer. How would you comment on the trend?

I look at it a little bit differently. I think it's a sign of a maturing market. Over the course of the last couple of years we've seen new capital into the real estate market. That capital tends to be sophisticated institutional capital. That tends to be long-term investment.

That capital has generally a clear objective of what they are trying to invest in and where in the risk spectrum they want to invest. And I think it's natural for developers to want to partner with that capital and it helps them diversify their portfolio and actually grow their assets under management. It's something we have seen in most markets we operate in, whether it is in the United States or Europe.

For Tishman Speyer, I don't think it really changes very much in terms of what our strategy is for China.

How big is your portfolio right now in China?

We have over 20 million square feet of real estate in China that's under planning, construction or operation. Two (projects) in Chengdu, two in Shanghai and Suzhou and a couple of other things that we are working on.

We had a project in Tianjin before [but have sold it].

According to the data provided on your website, it seems your projects are bigger in China than in other markets?

I would say in general compared to other markets, projects are larger in scale and scope in China. That's the nature of the market in China versus the markets in Europe or the US. But we don't really have a size threshold. We are much more focused on what value we can create in that project. We think about who would be the end-user for the project, how they will use that building and why.

Which regions or cities in China is Tishman Speyer looking at right now? Domestic developers are now flocking to first- and some second-tier cities, which they consider as lower risk.

There are certain geographical regions in China that we look to invest in and build up our platform and do more projects. These are the areas we believe are the economic growth engines for the country. Clearly, the Yangtze River Delta - Shanghai and other major cities surrounding it. Tianjin and Beijing in northern China. Chengdu and Chongqing in western China. Shenzhen and Guangzhou in southern China. Those are the markets where we want to develop a team, have a presence for the long term, and do multiple transactions.

We have over 270 people on the ground in China.

Do you agree that China's real estate market is becoming more challenging in the next decade? There are also reports that foreign multinationals are turning more cautious in adding new investment in China. How will that affect your strategy?

The Chinese economy is clearly going through a transition. Consolidation is happening in the real estate sector. It is not surprising that in such an environment the investment into real estate has slowed down.

That being said, we are still very optimistic about the mid- and long-term outlook in China. The major macro economic drivers such as urbanisation, the creation of the middle class and wealth within the middle class, capital market liberalisation and the emergence of best-class Chinese companies that will become multinational companies will continue. They will provide compelling investment opportunities in the future.

For most of the multinational companies we talk to, China is still too important a market for them. They remain committed to the China market and we help to serve them as their real estate requirements allow. In addition to that, there are opportunities for us to deepen relationships with domestic companies and look to work with those domestic companies in China but also help them as they expand internationally.

Compared with domestic developers, Tishman Speyer's expansion in China has been slow.

For us, it has never been about how big we can grow our business. Our strategy and growth plan are different from how other organisations look at the market. It's also why we remain positive about the opportunities in China, because as the market changes, opportunities also change. But if you can be focused on changing with that, there will be more that you can do.

Are rising land prices a concern and challenge for Tishman Speyer? How do you decide whether to participate in a certain land auction or not?

We are very value oriented. If a land auction is purely about who can pay the most amount of money and it's a commodity type of project, that is clearly not for us. I don't think we can create any greater value than what anybody else can do.

Will that limit your opportunities as most prime locations in China's top cities have already been developed? Or will you look at redevelopment projects?

There are still a lot of opportunities at hand in China, both in greenfield projects and the acquisition of existing assets that need redevelopment, repositioning and releasing. We've done many of those types of projects in the United States and Europe, and have great expertise in that area, and many of those assets tend to be in downtown central areas. So reinvestment into urban centres is a very viable opportunity in the future too, which is something slightly different than what has been happening in the past. We are looking at opportunities today that are both greenfield as well as taking over existing assets and redeveloping and repositioning.

The existing pipeline we have has tended to be greenfield investments, very focused on mixed-use projects, developed with transportation hubs. We are a very big believer that as the cities continue to grow and urbanise, transportation hubs will be a very important part of how these cities operate.