Ethical Property Company looks for supportive shareholders
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in the Observer, 2002
Commercial property may initially seem an unlikely place for ethically-minded investors to want to put their money. The Ethical Property Company believes otherwise, and is currently on the look-out for would-be shareholders interested as the company puts it in investing in social change.
Ethical Property launches [launched] a public share issue for £4.2m on Monday [September 23rd], in what amounts to an alternative version of the traditional buy-to-rent idea. The company already owns office buildings in London, Bristol, Leeds, Sheffield and Oxford which it rents out to charities, co-operatives and community organisations and it is now raising share capital to acquire a further set of properties, this time in Brighton and Manchester as well as London. Among prospective tenants of the new central London building, according to Ethical Propertys managing director Jamie Hartzell, are organisations such as World Development Movement, Fairtrade Foundation and Transport 2000. A range of environmental groups are lined up to occupy the Brighton property, whilst community and voluntary organisations are potential tenants for the Manchester office. A fourth new building, also in London, is currently under negotiation.
The origins of the Ethical Property Company go back to the heady radical days of the early 1980s when one of the directors, Andrew King, invested his own money to enable a new alternative bookshop Greenleaf to find premises in Bristol. He and Jamie Hartzell went on to acquire other properties in both Bristol and London for use by a wide range of campaigning groups and organisations, before deciding in 1998 to restructure the business as a plc and to invite other investors to join them. Somewhat to their surprise, the Ethical Property Companys first share launch, in 1999, was a considerable success: having aimed to attract £1.3m, the directors found themselves six months later with £1.72m invested and about 370 new shareholders, among them the institutional investor Henderson which had put in £500,000 from its ethical unit trust fund.
As with other ethical share issues of this kind, investors are not just in it for the money. Ethical Property says that its shareholders "benefit from the social and environmental returns that the company generates". Nevertheless existing shareholders have also received more conventional rewards for the past two years, in the form of a 3% dividend payment. There has also been a small appreciation in the shares official declared value, from £1 in 2000 to £1.05 this year, the price at which shares in the new issue are being offered. This is not necessarily quite the same as market value, since the company is unlisted and there is no formal market in the companys second-hand shares. Nevertheless Triodos Bank runs a matching service between buyers and sellers which appears to run efficiently, allowing an exit mechanism for existing shareholders who need to sell. Jamie Hartzell says that about 70,000 shares were successfully traded last year.
Ethical Propertys new share issue, if fully subscribed, will allow it to move up a gear, acquiring buildings two or three times the size of the current portfolio and benefiting in the process from economies of scale. Jamie Hartzell says that the companys policy is to select tenants who it hopes will fit together well. Its existing Archway Resource Centre in north London, for example, includes the Green Partys London office, the socialist magazine Red Pepper, Peace Brigades UK, an environmental video production company and a support service for Swahili speaking refugees. "We tend to be cheaper, in some cases considerably cheaper, than commercial landlords and for small organisations in particular we can offer access to meeting rooms and other facilities on very flexible terms," Jamie Hartzell says. He adds that properties are also refurbished to be as energy-efficient and environmentally friendly as possible.
The search for new shareholders will take Jamie Hartzell and his fellow directors to Brighton next month, where a public meeting about the share issue has been arranged for a town centre community centre on November 11th. Similar meetings are planned later in the Autumn in London (November 25th), Manchester and Sheffield, by which time Ethical Property hopes it will be close to its £4.2m target. "The average individual investment last time was about £2500-£3000 last time," Jamie Hartzell says. "We probably need about a thousand investors."
The minimum investment is set at £420 (£105 for those buying shares for children or grandchildren). More details and the prospectus are available from 0845 458 9526 or www.ethicalproperty.co.uk
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