Eric Cheah in Singapore, with the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in the background. He firmly believes that “you have to accept the local market conditions.”
Stefen Chow

Paving the way Down Under

He tends to work at night and often sleeps on the plane: from where he lives in Singapore, Eric Cheah is expanding Union Investment’s property portfolio in the Asia-Pacific region.

Eric Cheah never really knows what to make of the term “home country”. He was born in Malaysia. When he was one year old, his parents moved the family, including Cheah and his older brother, to Australia. He feels Australian and he holds an Australian passport. But now he lives in Singapore. That’s his home base from which he manages Union Investment’s real estate transactions for the Asia-Pacific region. The investment manager with more than 20 years’ experience in the real estate sector describes himself as a “cultural hybrid” – his childhood was shaped by Asian and international influences, and now he interacts with people from different cultures and language regions every day. “It’s the ideal mix for my job,” Cheah says, knowing that his numerous business partners represent a variety of real estate markets, market cycles, tax systems and juris-dictions, in which he has to become versed in order to pursue real estate acquisitions.


But this diversity is precisely what Cheah loves about his job. “In my business you need to be a good communicator. That’s important because it helps you build trust quickly,” the dealmaker explains. The fact that 46-year-old Cheah speaks “only” Anglo-Saxon languages does not seem to have affected his business success in the region. The portfolio he has built up encompasses not only properties in Singapore, but also real estate in Japan, Malaysia, and Australia. It includes office properties, residential buildings and shopping centres.


Minimising risk

Having only joined the company at the end of 2013, Cheah was instrumental in preparing the move to the fifth continent in 2014. It was an important step for Union Investment and the first practical test for the newcomer. He passed with flying colours! The very first investment Down Under involved a development project in Brisbane. For AU$200 million, Union Investment secured the Southpoint office and commercial property under construction in Brisbane’s South Bank precinct. The 27,900-square-metre multi-tenant building with grade A classification will be handed over to its users in mid-2016 and is fully let. The main user of the office section is the Flight Centre Travel Group, which has established its new international headquarters in the building. The supermarket Woolworths has decided to lease 30 percent of the 4,300 square metres of retail space. Internationally experienced Union Investment is especially pleased that the tenants have opted for comparatively long lease terms: Australia’s largest tour operator signed a contract for ten years, and commercial tenant Woolworths secured a 20-year lease. This is certainly not the rule in the Asia-Pacific region, as Cheah points out. As a counter example, he cites Japan, where office tenants customarily sign leases for “just” two to three years at a time.


Career

Eric Cheah received a thorough grounding in real estate and business administration from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and the Melbourne Business School. After various steps in his career that included the construction company Fletcher Construction and the real estate firm Pacific Star Group, he joined Union Investment in late 2013 as Head of Investment Management for the Asia-Pacific region.

How can a long-term investor deal with these regional traditions? How do you even define “core” under these circumstances? “You have to accept the local market conditions and minimise risks on a country-by-country basis,” explains the investment expert. With the current Asia-Pacific investment universe spanning seven different markets in five countries, that is no small feat. But Cheah is used to working in teams and with partners, involving experienced local lawyers, tax experts and technical advisers in decision-making processes. “Everything we do involves taking calculated risks. The goal is always to find the best solution for the investor,” says Cheah, who grew up in a family of financial professionals. Maybe that’s where he gets his discipline, his structured way of thinking and his nerves of steel, which he sees as the core virtues of his day-to-day work. “The job comes with a lot of responsibility. You can’t make emotional decisions, ever.” There wouldn’t be time for that anyway, con-sidering the pace set by Cheah in his market region. Barely 16 months after entering the market in Australia, Union Investment secured its first office building in Sydney. For AU$120 million, the property at 155 Clarence Street was added to the portfolio of the open-ended retail real estate fund UniImmo: Global.


Thus, the Hamburg-based firm is continuing on the path it mapped out for its real estate funds. They are becoming younger, more international and more diversified. In Sydney, unlike in Brisbane, the decision was made to acquire an existing historic property. Built in 1938 as a warehouse, the building was completely renovated in 2015. It offers some 12,000 square metres of grade A office space and an additional 530 square metres of retail space. Cheah discovered the 12-storey multi-tenant building with a roof terrace and a historic Art Deco façade in collaboration with Eureka Funds Management. 


In Sydney, Union Investment purchased the historic warehouse at 155 Clarence Street, which was built in 1938.
Peter Bennetts / Union Investment

It could hardly be in a better spot: Union Investment’s second property Down Under is located in the Western Corridor submarket, the commercial heart of Sydney. “We are a core investor, which means that we only target mature markets. In the Asia-Pacific region, we believe that mainly involves the major cities of Japan and Australia. Whenever we are looking for properties in these two countries, we focus primarily on a city’s Central Business District,” Cheah explains, shedding light on their acquisition criteria. Headquarters in Germany have high expectations of Cheah’s market expertise. But cool-headed Cheah can handle the pressure. As a dealmaker, he is almost required to be a mover and shaker. But not at any cost. As a matter of course, the Union Investment expert purposely places his level-headedness above his personal track record. “Sometimes, the best deal is the deal that you did not do,” says Cheah, who in his mid-40s demonstrates the natural composure of a much more veteran investor. He knows what he can do. And the market knows it too. So it should come as no surprise that it wasn’t a head-hunter that paved Cheah’s way to Union Investment, but rather a direct recommendation to Martin Brühl, Member of the Management Board at Union Investment Real Estate GmbH and Head of Investment Management International, to whom Cheah now reports directly. In close cooperation, Cheah and Brühl are working on a shared goal: to gradually increase the proportion of properties in the Asia-Pacific region over the coming years. To be sure, the risk/return profiles of the various markets are quite different due to their integration into local structures.


But that’s part of the strategy: to achieve greater risk diversification by investing in different markets that are independent of each other as far as possible. That’s why Cheah, with his wealth of local connections, has long since started to put out feelers in all the markets in the region. Among other things, he is carefully assessing the options for buying existing properties in the major cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Cheah spends three to five days away once or twice a month travelling through different regions and time zones. He has a two-year-old son and a newborn, but his schedule does not leave him much time for his family. “FaceTime helps,” says Cheah, who loves being on the road. Originally, he wanted to be an architect. But trained as a real estate project manager and now travelling to booming cities for a major investor, he has found the perfect way to combine his love for travel and real estate.


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