Ni must kick po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty into touch to at­tract in­vestors, says top prop­erty boss

Alastair Coul­son, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of The Junc­tion owner Lo­tus Prop­erty, tells Ryan Mcaleer about its plans for the fu­ture and lessons from the rugby field

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - Front Page - BY RYAN MCALEER

THE man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of one of North­ern Ire­land’s big­gest prop­erty de­vel­op­ers has said the on­go­ing po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty here is de­flect­ing in­vest­ment to other parts of the UK.

Alastair Coul­son, a Dundee na­tive and for­mer All-ire­land rugby player, heads Lo­tus Prop­erty, the com­mer­cial prop­erty end of the Ban­bridge-based Lo­tus Group. Two years ago Lo­tus bought the Junc­tion One re­tail park in Antrim and The Out­let re­tail park in Ban­bridge.

In Septem­ber, the group placed the Cres­cent Link Re­tail Park in Lon­don­derry on the mar­ket for £40.5m.

Last week Lo­tus an­nounced the £60m acquisition of 45 prop­er­ties in Scot­land. But while it is ramp­ing up its in­vest­ment, Mr Coul­son said many in­vestors are put off by the Stor­mont vac­uum and the fall­out from Brexit, opt­ing in­stead for other UK re­gions.

“In North­ern Ire­land it’s def­i­nitely a chal­lenge to bring in ex­ter­nal in­vestors at the mo­ment with Brexit and the un­cer­tainty. Things were tick­ing along just nicely be­fore the ref­er­en­dum. That’s some­thing that needs sorted out.”

AS­cot­tish-born prop­erty de­vel­oper has spo­ken of how his de­ter­mi­na­tion on the rugby field has helped him thrive in the world of North­ern Ire­land busi­ness.

per­ma­nent res­i­dent in North­ern Ire­land since 2005, Alastair Coul­son spent the bet­ter part of a decade play­ing All Ire­land first team rugby with Mal­one.

At 39, he’s still a very much sought af­ter first team player for his cur­rent club CIYMS.

But with a young fam­ily, and charged with head­ing one of the province’s big­gest prop­erty firms, the Dundee na­tive is spend­ing less time in the ruck and more time in the board­room.

As man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Ban­bridge-based Lo­tus Prop­erty, he has helped the firm ac­quire two of North­ern Ire­land’s best known re­tail des­ti­na­tions — Junc­tion One in Antrim and The Out­let in Ban­bridge, now re­branded The Junc­tion and Boule­vard re­spec­tively.

Fresh from a £60m deal for a port­fo­lio of prop­er­ties in Scot­land, he said the group is mov­ing ahead with a plan to build 200 new homes a year in North­ern Ire­land.

And in Septem­ber, Lo­tus Prop­erty’s Cres­cent Link Re­tail Park in Lon­don­derry also went on the mar­ket for £40.5m.

Born in Dundee in 1979, Alastair grew up with his sis­ter Ge­orgina, 18 months his ju­nior.

Their mother Lynn was a ra­dio­g­ra­pher, but went back to school and ended up with a lec­tur­ing ca­reer in the city.

Alastair’s suc­cess in the world of prop­erty is per­haps not so sur­pris­ing con­sid­er­ing his fa­ther’s ca­reer in Scot­land.

John Coul­son was a di­rec­tor and part­ner in WSP, a large Ed­in­burgh-based en­gi­neer­ing con­sul­tancy firm, be­fore start­ing his own com­pany.

Af­ter at­tend­ing school in Dundee and univer­sity in Glas­gow, Alastair fol­lowed a sim­i­lar ca­reer path. Em­ployed straight out of univer­sity in 2002 he went to work for the Mckenzie Part­ner­ship, which later be­came Davis Lang­don.

Three years later they made him an of­fer he couldn’t refuse.

“I was al­ready do­ing an aw­ful lot of work in North­ern Ire­land, but was of­fered the chance to be­come a part­ner in the firm if I moved here.

“So I took the op­por­tu­nity with both hands.”

Re­lo­cat­ing his life to Bal­ly­hack­amore, he moved to head up the firm’s Belfast op­er­a­tion.

“I was quite young. It was a cross­roads in my life. I had been in Glas­gow for nearly 10 years and I was al­ways think­ing I wanted to move some­where.

“From play­ing rugby in Dundee and go­ing to univer­sity in Glas­gow, I al­ready knew a lot of peo­ple in North­ern Ire­land, so I had that net­work of friends when I moved across.”

Com­ing from a high pedi­gree rugby back­ground, hav­ing played for Scot­tish di­vi­sion one side Dundee HSFP, Alastair found he eas­ily set­tled into life here, join­ing the Mal­one club.

“I threw my­self straight into it and I got picked for the first team, I think it was the first or sec­ond week I went to train­ing.

“We were play­ing In­sto­ni­ans and my mum and dad came over to watch me. Dad’s a big rugby man and they al­ways used to come and watch ev­ery sin­gle match I played in.

“Within about six min­utes, I com­pletely shat­tered my thumb. The bone came through the skin, it was ab­so­lutely dis­gust­ing.

“It was a freak ac­ci­dent, but that was me out for pretty much the whole of the sea­son.

“I was taken straight to the hospi­tal for screws in my thumb. So that was my in­tro­duc­tion to rugby in North­ern Ire­land.”

It didn’t put him off, how­ever. He spent the most part of a decade play­ing for Mal­one.

“Play­ing All Ire­land rugby was great, I got to see a lot of the coun­try, from Clontarf and Clon­akilty to Lim­er­ick and Athlone. There was al­ways quite a lot of the Ul­ster boys com­ing in and out of Mal­one. Chris Henry would’ve been there when I started, Tom Court, Alan O’con­nor — I could name loads of them.”

These days he dips in and out of the ac­tion at CIYMS in east Belfast.

“I just can’t play All Ire­land rugby any more. Gareth Fry, who I played with at Mal­one is the coach at ‘CI’, so I went there. A lot of us have gone across.

“I’ve been down to do a bit of train­ing, but I haven’t played this sea­son. I’m just too busy with work and I have young kids.”

Alastair re­vealed that his first ever blind date, set up for a night af­ter train­ing six years ago, turned into one of the most piv­otal mo­ments in his life.

It was his friend Tom who set the meet up with a young Saint­field Ul­ster Bank em­ployee called Chris­tine in The Spaniard bar, in Belfast’s Cathe­dral Quar­ter.

“It was a Thurs­day night, I couldn’t re­ally be both­ered be­cause I had been at rugby train­ing.

“I turned up and didn’t know what she looked like.

“I phoned my mate and he de­scribed her, but I ac­tu­ally in­tro­duced my­self to the wrong per­son.

“The whole bar turned around and it was so em­bar­rass­ing. Then Chris­tine walked in and they were all cheer­ing.

“We hit it off and we’ve been in­sep­a­ra­ble since.”

The cou­ple moved to Comber three years ago, with baby Max com­ing into the world soon af­ter, adding to their fam­ily, which in­cludes Alastair’s daugh­ter Beth (8).

While his rugby play­ing days may be com­ing to and end, it has left more time for other things.

“I love just spend­ing time with my fam­ily. I take Beth to horse rid­ing and ten­nis, wee Max does rugby tots, so I do a bit of run­ning around af­ter them.

“I’ve played rugby for nearly ev­ery week­end of my life. I love it, I al­ways have done.

“But I’ve got a few other hob­bies now. I would be into moun­tain bik­ing, road cy­cling — down

where we are, cy­cling around Strang­ford Lough is just lovely. I’ve done the Giro d’italia a cou­ple of times.

“I did the Belfast Triathlon this year for the first time, I didn’t re­ally en­joy it that much, but I’m just de­ter­mined. I wasn’t go­ing to let it beat me.”

That de­ter­mi­na­tion has been a fea­ture of his busi­ness life. Just 18 months af­ter mov­ing to Belfast in 2005, he was re­cruited by the Mur­dock fam­ily for their Ban­bridge-based prop­erty group.

Although it had a rel­a­tively low-pro­file at that time, the firm was one of the big­gest prop­erty in­vestors in North­ern Ire­land.

But things were about to change. Like many ma­jor prop­erty com­pa­nies, it felt the full force of the crash in 2007 and the en­su­ing months.

“We had to re­po­si­tion where we were, we had to sort out quite a few prob­lems.

“We prob­a­bly spent the bet­ter part of 10 years do­ing that.

“We’ve learned an aw­ful lot and we’ve changed an aw­ful lot.

“Through the bad times, we’ve be­come a much bet­ter busi­ness.”

Now trad­ing as the Lo­tus Group, the firm hit the head­lines two years ago when it bought the Junc­tion One re­tail park in Antrim and The Out­let in Ban­bridge.

Re­branded as The Junc­tion and The Boule­vard re­spec­tively, both are un­der­go­ing ma­jor in­vest­ment.

Just last week, the group ac­quired 45 prop­er­ties in Scot­land for £60m.

The hous­ing side of the busi­ness has also re­cov­ered well.

Lo­tus Homes has won house builder of the year award in the Belfast Tele­graph Prop­erty Awards for three years run­ning.

Alastair re­vealed that the com­pany is ex­pected to build around 175 homes in North­ern Ire­land this year.

“Our goal was to al­ways get to 200 houses a year.

“We have been slowly ramp­ing up to that kind of num­ber. It seems the right scale for the coun­try.”

Lo­tus is now also look­ing south with in­ter­est, open­ing a new of­fice in Dublin.

“We’ve had a go at a few things in Dublin this year, but the pric­ing is very ag­gres­sive.

“At the minute we’re gath­er­ing in­tel, we’re look­ing, lis­ten­ing and learn­ing.

“We want to build up a knowl­edge base be­cause I think there might be a mar­ket cor­rec­tion com­ing down the line.”

He con­firmed that Lo­tus Prop­erty will con­tinue to seek largescale in­vest­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties in the new year, both in­side and out­side of North­ern Ire­land.

“Over the next five years we want to dou­ble the turnover of our busi­ness and dou­ble the profit,” he said.”

But while Lo­tus is pre­pared to in­vest large sums, Alastair said con­vinc­ing out­side in­vestors to spend here re­mains a chal­lenge in the present cli­mate.

“In North­ern Ire­land it’s def­i­nitely a chal­lenge to bring in ex­ter­nal in­vestors at the mo­ment with Brexit and the un­cer­tainty.

“Things were tick­ing along just nicely be­fore the ref­er­en­dum.”

The man­ag­ing di­rec­tor said many in­vestors are be­ing put off by the com­bi­na­tion of the Stor­mont vac­uum and the fall­out from Brexit, opt­ing in­stead for other UK re­gions.

“That’s some­thing that needs sorted out, be­cause North­ern Ire­land and Belfast in par­tic­u­lar has such a great story to tell.

“The cost of liv­ing and qual­ity of life is fab­u­lous in Belfast.

“There’s a real op­por­tu­nity to grow the city and grow the coun­try.

“But that needs the ex­ter­nal in­vest­ment, which is a bit of a chal­lenge.”

How­ever, Alastair said he’s ex­cited for his own firm’s prospects.

“I’ve worked with Lo­tus through the good times, the bad times and now very much in the good times again. I think the fu­ture is re­ally ex­cit­ing for us.” Qwhat’s

the best piece of busi­ness (or life) ad­vice you’ve ever been given? Athere

are a few re­ally good pieces of ad­vice. Firstly, work with peo­ple you like and that like you and se­condly lis­ten to peo­ple be­fore mak­ing a judg­ment call. It’s par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant in my role to gather all of the in­for­ma­tion and dis­sect it prop­erly be­fore com­ing to a fi­nal de­ci­sion. Qwhat

piece of ad­vice would you pass on to some­one start­ing out in busi­ness? Athere

is noth­ing that beats hard work. You al­ways get out what you put in.

Qwhat

was your best busi­ness de­ci­sion? Ade­cid­ing to get into prop­erty af­ter start­ing a Sports Science de­gree. It is an in­dus­try I re­ally en­joy. All my hob­bies re­volve around sport. QIF you weren’t do­ing this job, what would be your other ca­reer? AI would have liked to be­come a ski in­struc­tor. Qwhat was your last holiday? Where are you go­ing next? AI was in Mau­ri­tius re­cently and I am look­ing for­ward to go­ing ski­ing be­fore Christ­mas.

Qwhat

are your hob­bies/ in­ter­ests? AI like be­ing ac­tive and en­joy rugby, ski­ing and cy­cling. I also love cook­ing and so­cial­is­ing with friends.

QIF

you en­joy read­ing, can you rec­om­mend a book? Athe Count of Monte Cristo by Alexan­dre Du­mas is one of my favourite nov­els. I have also just fin­ished Legacy by James Kerr which is about the All Blacks of New Zealand.

Qwhat is your favourite sport and team? Arugby and the Scot­tish rugby team.

Qand have you ever played any sports? Arugby has al­ways been a big part of my life and I have played it since I was young.

Qhow

would you de­scribe your early life? AIT was full of mis­chief, hap­pi­ness, hard work and travel. I can’t com­plain at all, it was great and I came from a lov­ing and sup­port­ive fam­ily.

Qhave

you any eco­nomic pre­dic­tions? Awith

Brexit on the hori­zon I would find it hard to make any pre­dic­tions at this point. I am look­ing for­ward to a de­ci­sion been made so that things can set­tle down and we can hope­fully en­ter a pe­riod of nor­mal­ity, if there is such a thing these days. Qhow

would you as­sess your time in busi­ness with your com­pany Lo­tus? Awork­ing

with Lo­tus con­tin­ues to be an ex­pe­ri­ence. We have been through good times and bad times, but the con­stant has been the bril­liant cul­ture and the group of peo­ple I work with who all share fo­cus, vi­sion and a hard work ethic.

Qhow

do you sum up work­ing in the prop­erty sec­tor? AI love work­ing in prop­erty. This is a very so­cial job and I am never stuck at a desk for very long, which suits me down to the ground.

Our goal was to get to 200 houses a year ... we have been slowly ramp­ing up to that kind of num­ber

PHOTO: AN­DREW PA­TON/PRESSEYE

@Ryan­m­caleer­biz

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