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