Nick Leslau, one of Britain’s wealthiest property entrepreneurs, loves buildings other people would find ugly.
“I have a thing for unfashionable buildings that people generally hate,” says the multi-millionaire who turned two sixties office blocks in London into the St Martins Lane and Sanderson hotels. “I like them because of the opportunity they represent and not because they look beautiful.”
But Leslau, who has amassed wealth in excess of £330m through big property deals, expects his sector to be slow this year.
“The property market is, excuse my expression, very constipated,” he says.
“The costs associated with buying and selling a property are so high that even when a buyer offers a cracking price, the seller doesn’t want to sell because he won’t be able to make a solid profit.
“Equally, everyone is desperate for yields in a market that is highly illiquid. This has led to a place where the assets you want to buy are too expensive and the vendors aren’t interested in selling because it will kill their yield. I expect the market to remain like this over the next two-three years.”
Is this Brexit-related? “No, not at all. This is a property cycle that would’ve happened irrespective of Brexit,” Leslau warns.
It is hard not to trust the 58-year-old property veteran’s judgement about the market.
In 1982, a 23-year-old Leslau was appointed the youngest CEO at the time of a listed company, Burford Estate & Property. Lessons learnt scraping through a degree in estate management from South Bank University came in handy, he says.
In 2011, Leslau bought London marina St Katharine Docks for £156m through his investment vehicle Max Property Group. The firm was sold to Blackstone for nearly £450m in 2014.
Currently, Leslau is the chairman of investment adviser Prestbury that is a 30 per cent shareholder in Secure Income real estate investment trust (Reit), a property firm with £1.6bn worth of assets including 55 Travelodge hotels.
That rollercoaster crash
The Aim-listed Reit also owns theme parks Alton Towers and Thorpe Park which it leases to Merlin Entertainments.
Secure Income Reit is Leslau’s main focus this year.
“It is a fantastic business for returns and has performed beautifully in the last couple of years. It has the longest leases of any Reits in the UK,” Leslau says.
Leslau shrugs off worries about growth following the rollercoaster crash at Alton Towers in 2015 in which 16 people were injured including two girls who needed leg amputations.
The motormouth property mogul expresses great faith in Merlin CEO Nick Varney and calls him “an outstanding leader of his generation”.
“Statistically, you’ll have heard that it’s 20 to 200 times more likely to get killed driving to a theme park than in a theme park. The whole point the rides are there is because of the thrill.
“There was a human error for which Merlin has paid a massive price but the performance of the business has been exemplary and the share price is now at an all-time high,” he says.
A colourful character, Leslau worships the property sector but has a bizarre analogy for his obsession with it.
“The sector is wonderful to work in as properties don’t have opinions, they don’t go on holiday, they don’t answer back,” he chuckles.
From bricks to books
However, Leslau’s most memorable deals, both good and bad, are from outside the sector.
“I tried to bring the world’s first indoor virtual reality theme park at the Trocadero centre in Piccadilly Circus but it bombed and that hurt because it was such a public failure.
“It did make money but it wasn’t about the money, it was about the vision.”
His favourite deal has been buying rights to Enid Blyton’s books.
“I did that deal with Enid’s daughters, one of whom didn’t really like her mother at all and one who adored her. That was quite an interesting negotiation,” he enthuses.
Among sectors that have impressed Leslau is the meteoric rise of online retailers like Amazon while high street brands have left him unimpressed.
“When retailers are doing well, it’s the management and when they’re doing badly it’s the weather. They aren’t good investments in the long run,” he remarks.
Leslau cleary likes to think long-term but do not mention the r-word to him.
“No, no, no, I have no plan to retire. I’m not retiring until I’m stuck in a home or in a box or something,” he says.