August 30, 2022

JF2917: Shopping Centers & Small Bay Industrial ft. Danny Newberry

Danny Newberry has been busy since his last appearance on the Best Ever Show. The CEO of Vail Commercial Group, a privately held boutique commercial real estate group, has been focusing on value-add shopping centers and small bay industrial facilities around the country. With close to $100M in assets under management, the group is also focusing on single-tenant, ground-up construction deals. 

In this episode, Danny shares what the heavy value-add repositioning process looks like for shopping centers and small bay industrial facilities, plus his unique, win-win approach to tenant relationships. 


Danny Newberry | Real Estate Background



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Slocomb Reed: Best Ever listeners, welcome to the best real estate investing advice ever show. I'm Slocomb Reed and I'm here with Danny Newberry. Danny is joining us from Vail, Colorado. He is the CEO of Vail Commercial Group, which focuses on repositioning shopping centers and industrial properties, as well as single tenant ground-up commercial construction. Current portfolio, they are GPs of over 80 million in assets under management, and he is a returning guest, almost 1,900 episodes later. His first episode was 1005, "Why he prefers to buy shopping centers now, with Danny Newberry." Danny, can you tell us a little bit more about your background and what you've been doing for the last 1900 ish days?

Danny Newberry: [laughs] Hey, I appreciate you having me on the show again. Happy to be back, and it's always a pleasure. So yeah, a lot has definitely happened in the 2000 episodes... Obviously, the economy has gone through some interesting times, we're definitely in a very interesting period as we speak... And our main core focus has really been value-add shopping centers around the country, as well as small bay industrial facilities. So we're currently in 15 states, we've done about a couple hundred million dollars in transactional volume. Right now we're close to about 100 million in assets under management...

Slocomb Reed: Nice.

Danny Newberry: ...and we continue to review the portfolio on stuff that we hold for the long-term versus stuff that we fix it up, fill it up and flip it. So we've got a little bit of two buckets, is how we like to classify it. One is, "Hey, look at this, it's a really quality asset." We fixed it up, we filled it up, we got really good tenancy, we feel really good about it long term, especially going into maybe some downturns and some recessions around the corner. So those ones we set and forget them, put long-term fixed financing in place and enjoy the cash flow and the amortization.

The other bucket is really where we find a good deal, there's a ton of meat on the bone, but it may not be the highest quality asset, or the area may be not trending necessarily in the right direction, or it's stagnant. So we know we can get in, fix it up very quickly, fill it up very quickly, add equity very quickly, and essentially flip out of it and make a nice gain. So that's typically what we've been doing. We've been trying to focus too a lot on the single-tenant development ground-up construction deals... Right now we're currently doing a ground-up build-to-suit for Starbucks, we're doing a 50-year ground lease with Panera Bread, we're working with Les Schwab Tires on another ground lease... So we've got lots of these little deals that -- those are more like coupon clippers; we set them in the portfolio and just hold on to them for the long-term.

Slocomb Reed: Danny, I already have so many questions. Most of them are about -- I'm an apartment owner-operator in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a lot of people draw comparisons, but also point out the dissimilarities between things like shopping centers and light industrial and apartments. So most of my questions here -- often the deals I'm buying are repositions of apartment buildings; significant vacancy, often below 80%, and more heavy renovation required. So let's start there... When you're looking at repositioning a shopping center, or a small bay industrial facility, let's start with some general numbers... What kind of timelines are you looking at for that reposition? You know, you close on January 1st, what is that year or year plus going to look like, of getting through that process of repositioning?

Danny Newberry: Typically for us, we've actually tracked our numbers on our KPIs, and our normal turnaround time is about 12 to 16 months. Some are quicker than that if there isn't that much heavy-lifting. So we have those kinds of deals as well. But I would say like a large reposition, where you're doing everything from the parking lot, you're doing landscaping, monument signage, you're painting the building and doing some parapets and some mezzanines, or you're doing new roof, new HVAC, just really kind of giving it an entire new, fresh look and feel to the center, or to the industrial building. So that may take some time. And then you have to go and reposition the spaces, because a lot of times there's either vacancy, or you've got tenancy that's way below market rate rent. So what we like to do is we like to find [unintelligible 00:06:56.23] short-term leases, and do all the work, go into them and let them know, "Hey, look, we're going to bring you to market, but what's going to take to keep you here for the long-term and sign, call it a 3, 5, 7, 10-year lease?"

So we figure out what their needs are, what their wants are, and a lot of times it's "Hey, we need more office space", or "Hey, we want to stay in concrete floors, and we want A/C in our unit. We need more space/less space", whatever it may be. And then when they go out to the market and see, "Look, my landlord is doing a ton of work, but the rents are the same price right down the street at an older facility." So typically, they will stick around and we create a great relationship with them for the long-term. So that's what we're looking for. Every deal is a little different, but 12 to 18 months is really a solid timeframe, and we're currently in the middle of a few of those deals; a couple of them we actually just took to market, because we were just getting a few that we're not looking to hold for the long-term, and other ones that are in the middle of a refinance... So they're kind of all over the board.

Slocomb Reed: Danny, I get that each of your repositions is going to be different, and the differences in yours are going to vary more than mine, for example, where - apartments are a lot more homogenous, even than just shopping centers, much less non-residential commercial and some of the other stuff that you're getting yourself into. You said 12 to 16 months; where are you after 12 to 16 months? Is that fully occupied, quality tenants paying market rents, you've got a T-3 and you're ready for a refinance? Or you have financials to share with brokers? What does it look like? Where are you after those 12 to 16 months?

Danny Newberry: Absolutely. Great question. So I'll just give you a quick example of one that we bought literally last June.

Slocomb Reed: Great. Yeah.

Danny Newberry: It's a 28,000 square-foot small bay industrial facility here in Colorado, and it was owned by the original owners, went down to the trust, so the kids took over when the grandpa passed away... And these guys had handshake deals with every one of their tenants at five bucks a foot gross, no leases in place. There's about 15 tenants, about 2,500 square-foot bays, and there's an additional three and a half acres with the property. So what I did was I bought it for 1.7, we put about 350,000 into it. We painted all the buildings, we fixed all the metal siding, so basically reskinned the buildings; we redid the parking lot, sealcoat, stripe, crack fill, all of that. We did landscaping throughout the property, we put a new monument sign in, we put tenant signage, backchannel lettering on all the tenants... And then on the three and a half additional acres we graded, graveled, fenced and put a camera system on those acreages for outdoor commercial storage.

So we basically took all these $5 gross leases when we first bought the building - again back last June. If you take what we were bringing in at that time, we were probably bringing in about $140,000 in total income. Today we are bringing in approximately about $300,000 in nets. Essentially, I think we're somewhere around $260,000 - $270,000 net base income, plus our [unintelligible 00:10:04.28] our triple net expenses, because we converted everyone from gross leases to triple net. And for your listeners that are wondering what triple net is, that is where your tenant pays for taxes, insurance, and common area maintenance. So they'll pay their pro rata share of those costs. So you can bill those back to the tenants, and they're not a landlord responsibility.

So based on that, our new NOI, we took the property out about 45 days ago; we're under contract to sell it at four and a quarter million. So we doubled up what we paid for it literally 13 months ago. So we'll probably net north of 2 million bucks on that deal, and it's taken us 13 months to do.

Slocomb Reed: That's awesome. So 13 months, right in that timeline that you said; that's impressive, for sure. Danny in your space, 13 months - that's right in the timeline that you said. It sounds like an awesome deal. Do you reach peak performance with that asset, financially speaking, before you take it to market? Are you looking to have a solid T-3 or something like that for you, some historical financials to share with brokers? Or is it like the moment the leases are signed, you're listing it?

Danny Newberry: Yeah, the moment the leases are signed. It's kind of like a Starbucks. When you sign a lease with Starbucks, the value is there; the building might not even be up, or they might just be getting started on the [unintelligible 00:11:26.10] But you can go to any bank at that point and it's financeable. Now, with some of these mom and pop tenants sometimes you do have to have some seasoning requirements, typically a couple months, but because small bay industrial are more like apartment buildings... Every time you lose a tenant, there's ten more guys tradesmen ready to move in and pay a higher rent than the last guy. So they're treating it more that way, and because there's such high demand, we have been able to skip the seasoning requirements over the last few years and literally either take it to market or go in for a refinance immediately.

Slocomb Reed: Wow. Is that because small bay industrial is experiencing a similar supply demand crunch? I think that's what you were saying, that there just isn't nearly enough of it for all of the tradesmen and businesses that want to be in that space.

Danny Newberry: Well, if you look too at the trend, there is a ton of industrial being built. But it's not small bay industrial. It is manufacturing, it's logistics centers that are Amazon-size buildings. So you're not getting your electrician and your plumber and your carpenter and your small-time auto guys and stuff that are taking those spaces. Those are all big, national companies. So the small bay - again, there's just a ton of demand for them, and there's not enough... And they're not building them anymore. So I think there's a lot opportunity. And what we're finding is that the rents is kind of like on apartments, the rents have been going up so rapidly over the last few years that you're seeing a lot of these properties where rents are just way below market, and a lot of times we're seeing them 30%, 40%, 50%, sometimes 100% below market. I mean, it's crazy. There's big gains to be made, and a lot of times, a lot of landlords will sign one-year leases with these people just like apartments. What we do is we bring them to market and then we like to lock in a three, five plus year lease with these guys, because then it makes it a lot more stabilized on the open market, or when you refinance, you can get better terms on your loan.

Slocomb Reed: Totally. What kind of cap rates are you seeing on these sales now? We're recording in mid-July 2022; interest rates increasing, I know that's affecting apartment investors greatly... But the growth in cap rates is lagging the growth in interest rates. What are you seeing in your space, Danny?

Danny Newberry: Six caps for this small bays. I mean, we've got two deals under contract, one's like a six and a quarter, and the other one's like a 6.15?

Slocomb Reed: Is that where you're buying, or where you're selling?

Danny Newberry: That's where we're selling? No, we're not buying there. We're selling there.

Slocomb Reed: Gotcha. That's what I thought you were saying; I just wanted to clarify.

Danny Newberry: Everything we look for has to have huge upside, otherwise it just doesn't make sense for us. If we have a huge spread on the equity piece of it, we can make a lot of mistakes, even going into a downturn in a recession, where hey, if you bought it for 2 million and I've got under contract to sell at four and a quarter - well, even if it went down 50%, I'd still be in the equity position on this deal. So it's not like I'd be underwater in any given case. So that's why we like these deals that have huge markups on the rents, on the actual facility itself by fixing it up... A lot of commercial owners just don't put the money back into their properties. A lot of them are in their 60's, 70's, 80's, they're retired... The average person actually getting into commercial real estate is 48 years old. So if you think about it, they buy in their late 40's, early 50's, and then they hold it for 10 or 20 years and now they're in retirement age and that's when they look to really scale down and do a lot less management, and they're just not pushing hard what the young bucks can do to go in there and create value very quickly.

Slocomb Reed: Speaking of creating value, Danny, a bit of an aside - we have a very sophisticated audience for the Best Ever podcast, and a lot of us are apartment investors. And the vast majority of those apartment investors are value-add, and not doing the kind of heavy repositioning that I do with apartments, some of my deals... And it sounds like what you're doing, from a renovation development perspective with your deals. As an apartment investor who does serious value-added repositions, one of the questions that's coming to mind for me coming from my perspective - and I hope a lot of our listeners perspectives - when you know that you buy a building, and you're planning to do significant work to it, you plan to increase the rents significantly, and you hope to keep your tenants. How and when do you broach that conversation with them? Are you telling your tenants the moment you buy it you're raising rents? Or are you doing some improvements first, and then going back to them and renegotiating later? What is the nuance in that for you?

Danny Newberry: We let them know first of all about all the improvements we're going to do to the exterior. "Hey, look, we're coming in. We're the new game in town. We want to make this property a really great place for your business. We want it to be presentable, we want it to look great. We want it to feel great. We want people to feel safe here." So that's our first conversation, right? We introduce ourselves. And then we always say, "Hey, look, we love our tenants, we realize this is a win/win situation; if you can stay, we'd love for you to stay here. So what can we do to help your business grow?" We've done this a lot, where if you want an interior remodel, you want certain things to help your business, maybe it's even just more marketing, more getting your name out there, whatever they're looking for... And we can kind of get a good idea of what it is they would like, and then we bid it out. A lot of times it's some capital improvements to their space, and we'll say, "Hey, look, how about this? We'll give you a TI budget of, call it $20,000. Okay, but I want you to sign a five-year lease. I'm also going to give you two months of free rent... But here's the deal - I am going to take you to market. Because I can't just throw all this money into this property and not get a return on that. And this is a win/win, I want to make this a great workplace for you, and I want this to be a successful endeavor for your business, so let's make this win/win. I'm going to give a lot up front, and then you're going to pay it on the back end over the course of the lease. So we'll bake that back in." And obviously, a lot of times they'll go around and look at what the comparable rents are.

Slocomb Reed: Of course, yeah. Everyone would.

Danny Newberry: And then they'll come back and say "Well, I could move over there, but they're not going to give me brand new flooring, more office space, more warehouse space, whatever it is I'm looking for... Along with some free rent - that sounds great." So a lot of times that's how we entice them. And obviously, some of them will be a little hesitant... They're like, "Look, we want to see the improvements get done first on the exterior and then let's talk." And that's fine. No problem. We can do that.

Break: [00:18:01.10] to [00:19:47.22]

Slocomb Reed: I want to key in on that free rent for a couple of months. You're the first person in your segment of commercial real estate investing who I've heard bring that up. Let me present some assumptions I'm making about why you do that. Let's see if I've got this right, or correct me if I'm wrong, for the benefit of our listeners. A couple of months of free rent makes it a lot easier for a tenant to handle a rent increase, because supposedly, they're business owners, so they're good at saving money, and that's going to help them keep that money in the bank and then use it as they transition into having a nicer space, hopefully, being able to increase their own revenue, and pay an increased rent.

What matters the most to you is how much this building is going to be worth after they sign that 3, 5, 7 plus year lease. So the increased carry costs or the decreased revenue or however you want to look at it in the short-term doesn't matter to you as much, because it's about what the thing is going to be worth when all the leases are signed. But it's also a big boon to your tenants, in that it eases them to the transition of having a nicer place, potential for greater revenue, but paying that larger market rent and signing that longer lease. Am I correct here?

Danny Newberry: Absolutely. And at the end of the day, if they don't want to pay it and they're gonna move somewhere else, it might take me another 30, 60, 90 days anyways.

Slocomb Reed: The space is gonna empty and you're gonna be rentless for a while anyways. Yeah.

Danny Newberry: So it's a win/win, because they love it, and for us it's like, "Well, if you left, that's the situation we'd be in in the first place, so we might as well just give it to you up front, along with doing some improvements to your space. Plus, you're gonna see all the exterior renovation getting done, and then we manage everything in-house, so we have a really good budget for repairs and maintenance, and obviously, just keeping our properties looking really, really dialed in. So I think our tenants really do appreciate that. Most of the properties we buy are pretty run down; they do need a lot of work. There's hardly ever where we come in and we don't really have to do anything; this just doesn't necessarily happen very regularly, for us at least.

Slocomb Reed: Yeah, and that's not your business model; you're not the one paying the premium for the spaces that are completely ready to go and get that market rate the way that the people that you're selling to are.

Danny Newberry: Exactly.

Slocomb Reed: I have a question, but I want to dial into my point of comparison here as an apartment investor. So my larger repositions have been C class apartments; so blue collar, workforce housing. In Cincinnati, Ohio, this trend of $15 an hour and Amazon bringing a new warehouse - great for us, great for this community; all wages are increasing for these people. What I've come to do when I take over a property like that is I introduce to all of the tenants effectively my business plan; and not with necessarily these words, but I say, "Happy to have you here. We are going to make this a nicer place to live, and as such, the rents will increase. Here are some of the places that we're going to make your home a better place to live, that merits a higher rent." Then we go into the business plan.

And one of the reasons that we do it that way is that with class C tenants, at least the way that I categorize class C, what we're seeing in Cincinnati, respect and fairness are very high values in this community. So if we started increasing rent on some people and not others, the sentiment of disrespect may be enough that they wouldn't be able to overcome and we'd lose quality tenants, because they felt disrespected. We also do the same thing when we increase rents; just because the market has shifted, we announce the rent increase to everyone at the same time. And then for those who are locked into a year lease, we just say "The increase is going up (it's mid-July) September 1st. Your lease isn't up until the end of January, so it doesn't affect you until February 1." But we announce it for everyone, to make sure that we're demonstrating respect and fairness across the board.

I'm getting to my point, give me just a moment longer; a little long-winded here... But my experience has been that since we don't raise the rent until we've done those major common area improvements, like you said, parking lots, monument signs, roofs, common areas, hallways, painting, take care of well-deferred landscaping and dumpsters and things like that - the moment we actually announce that we're increasing rent, that's when people started leaving. And we will have, I'd say 10% of the inherited tenant base leave immediately, and then another 10% to 20% of the tenant base may have trouble paying that higher rent, and we have to help them go. But our retention rate's pretty high, because we said we were going to add value, we demonstrated the value, and then they decide to stay. What is your retention rate like? And is there any other points of comparison between my process and yours that you want to comment on, along with your retention rate for your tenants?

Danny Newberry: We don't really track the retention rate, because every deal is so different. We've got lots of different types of properties. Here's the thing - they're all value-add, but the majority of what I buy is retail and industrial. But I've got medical office, I've got office, I've got land deals... We're working on a plethora of different type of asset classes where you've got lots of different key metrics that you've got to watch. So on the small bay stuff, it's been a pretty high retention rate, because there's just not a lot of vacancy in the market.

Slocomb Reed: That makes sense.

Danny Newberry: So if the vacancy is so low, where are they going to go? And if you're in an area where you're the only game in town, or a couple other places that are in the immediate area, sometimes if there are higher quality asset, they're even asking way more than we are. So it all depends. Now, you can go and sometimes find a crappy building, but a lot of times those are full, too. So we are not seeing a ton; I would say probably 10% is a pretty good delinquency rate that when we first buy something and people don't want to stay. But for the most part, I feel like we can work out deals with these people.

Retail's a little different though than industrial. So if you can't work it out there, there's a lot of different options when it comes to the retail side of things, depending on where you're at. You may have to be a lot more aggressive on tenant improvement dollars, and your rent commencement date, and being able to deliver vanilla shelf space with the exact dimensions that they need. So it's a lot more tenant-specific than the small bay, where it's like cookie cutter, just apartments. It's like, you've got a 10 by 10 box, with a bathroom and a little office, and you're not really painting the walls, you're not really doing much, unless they really want it...

Slocomb Reed: Danny, are you white-boxing your vacant stuff, make it really nice and presentable before you lease it?

Danny Newberry: We try to. Sometimes though, if we know a vacancy is coming up, we will get it out there. And sometimes it's rented before the tenant ever leaves, so then we don't do anything unless they ask specifically, like "Will you do this? And then we're like, "Oh yeah, no problem."

Slocomb Reed: I don't know what's happened in the last couple of years, but my tenant base has absolutely lost its sense of imagination... I can't show an apartment until it's absolutely 100% completely ready; even if I have say like three vacancies in one building, and I have one that's in pristine condition ready to be moved into, but I've already got a lease signed for it, I'll show it first. My team will explain to the prospect "I just want to show you what these apartments look like. This one's already leased. I've got a couple others if you want to see them", and they walk in and they haven't been painted yet, or we're in the process of replacing a cabinet, or something like that, and we lose the tenant because that appointment was imperfect and they can't see past current issues, even when I showed them what the result will look like before they're ready to move in.

And I've heard actually the exact same thing that you've just said from other investors in your space, that the preference is show it while there's an operating business inside, because showing what the space looks like with an active business in operation is best. But the moment it's empty, you've got to white-box it. These people are entrepreneurs, and that doesn't mean they can imagine themselves in a dirty space. Is that your experience?

Danny Newberry: Yeah, it's less on the industrial. I'll tell you one thing - office and medical office, for sure.

Slocomb Reed: It makes sense, yeah.

Danny Newberry: If you don't have [unintelligible 00:28:06.17] But if it's vanilla, or just like things are everywhere, and old cabinets - I mean, yeah, it's really tough to lease office space that way. So that for sure needs to be vanilla-shelled, or spec-ed out. And then on the small bay - believe it or not, these contractors don't care if it doesn't look that great. But what we try and do immediately upon someone moving out, if we haven't pre-rented it, is yes, we'll paint all the walls white, we'll typically try and do a stained concrete, and just do a clean. Clean the bathrooms, clean the office, maybe change out carpet, and that's about it. There's not a lot to do.

I guess the last thing is we have been upgrading to LED lighting within the spaces, so that's another thing we typically like to do... But we don't see it as much. It's just a box, right? So it's a little bit different than your living quarters.

Now, on the retail side of things - yeah, you don't want to go too far, because every tenant has a specific buildout. So what they want to know is "Do you have the right amount of space that I can build out my specific needs?" So you definitely don't want to spec out retail. Vanilla boxing it is perfect; that's fine. Just make sure it's clean, and it's open, and then from there, you let them tell you exactly what they need and how they need it, and then usually you either give them a turnkey buildout, or you give them a TI budget and they do it themselves, and then you release funds as they finish the process.

Slocomb Reed: Danny, I wish I had another hour to grill you with these questions, and do a little more listening than talking. I feel like I did a lot of talking there towards the end. But this is a shorter-form podcast... You've been on the show before; we're not supposed to do the Best Ever lightning round typically, but are ready for an abbreviated Best Ever lightning round?

Danny Newberry: Sure, yeah. Let's do it!

Slocomb Reed: Awesome. What is the best ever book you've recently read?

Danny Newberry: Man, there's so many good ones out there.

Slocomb Reed: What was the last book you recently read?

Danny Newberry: Well, the last one I read actually ended up being "Who, not how."

Slocomb Reed: I did that, too. Yeah.

Danny Newberry: That was such a great book, because instead of doing everything yourself, find people that are great at the things you're not great at, and only focus your attention on what you are specifically amazing at. Everything else should be essentially put off onto other experts. So I definitely got a lot out of that book for sure.

Slocomb Reed: Absolutely. Only one more Lightning Round question, Danny... In your commercial real estate investing career thus far, what is the biggest mistake you've made, and the best ever lesson that resulted from it?

Danny Newberry: I would say -- I think go bigger, faster.

Slocomb Reed: Can you give us a concrete example of that? I'm looking for a problem here, Danny. We've talked for a while about how everything has looked great with your portfolio... I'm not telling you to tell me what you do wrong, but give us some value here, something that the Best Ever audience can learn from a mistake that you've met.

Danny Newberry: Hiring A players. So you want to really build a team, and that's what I mean when I say go bigger, faster. You can't afford to build a team if you don't have the income, the cash flow, the cash behind you to do it. So if you have a scenario that's worked, and you can repeat it, or you know you can buy something, you can fix it up and fill it up and you can create enormous value, I think doing that as quick as possible, so that way you can afford to have the best people on your team is really number one going to create way more sustainability; you're going to have more freedom, ultimately... Not upfront, because you've got to build it, right? You've got to build the infrastructure and build the team. But once you do - man, you just let people be their best and help grow your company; you're going to go a long ways, a lot faster.

I was a big proponent of going bigger, faster, and building that team. And now that I have that team, it's really great. And we've slowed down a lot on the acquisitions just based on where we're at in the economy, but we still have great strategies, and even better strategies during tough times. So we're really excited for what's ahead.

Slocomb Reed: Awesome. Danny, where can people get in touch with you?

Danny Newberry: is our website, and if anyone's ever looking to JV on a retail or industrial facility, we're always looking at joint ventures, partnerships; if anyone's interested in getting involved in a syndication deal, we do those as well. So we're doing a little bit of everything.

Slocomb Reed: Awesome. The links are available in the show notes as well. Danny, thank you. Best Ever listeners, thank you as well. If you've gained value from listening to this conversation about repositioning shopping centers, small bay industrial, medical office and other similar assets, please do subscribe to our show, leave us a five star review, and share this episode with another investor you know that we can add value to through this conversation. Thank you, and have a best ever day!

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