Real estate, alternative real assets and other diversions

‘Master and Commander’: Urban & Civic plc and Nigel Hugill Our Analyst Tony Williams explores the high seas of property investment and how life imitates art

The Analyst

Film still from 'Master and Commander' showing a naval captain in front of his ship

The movie of the same name – and subtitled ‘the Far Side of the World’ – is a 2003-made epic which is set in the Napoleonic Wars and stars Russell Crowe. It received wide critical acclaim on release and, at the 76th Academy Awards, was nominated for 10 Oscars including Best Picture. It went on to win only two – which were also at the workmanlike end of the Academy’s spectrum – because The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King swept the board. Financially, though, Master and Commander generated a 30% gross margin.

The plot revolves around Captain Jack Aubrey (Crowe) and his ship, HMS Surprise (yes, really) with which he successfully pursues and seizes the much larger and heavier French privateer Acheron, in the waters off the west coast of South America (hence the ‘Far Side’ reference). He achieves this with a mix of courage, guile, nimbleness and verve.

Urban & Civic plc is a Master; and real estate veteran Nigel Hugill its Commander. It operates on ‘the Far Side of London’ – rather than the World – and its financials are burgeoning. But it is not yet famous (like Tolkien). The Group (UANC) was created through Terrace Hill acquiring the unlisted but seaworthy Urban & Civic Sàrl which, in essence, was a reverse takeover. But the newly configured management had the good sense to put the technical acquiree’s name above the gangplank.

Terrace Hill brought a long track record of commercial development with a spinnaker in food stores, where it was a marine leader. At the same time, Urban & Civic – founded in 2009 – owned two large strategic residential sites in Cambridgeshire and Warwickshire (with an estimated Gross Development Value or GDV of £2.7 billion).

UANC is as a Master Developer of strategic real estate sites in the UK. It identifies and assembles these opportunities, wins all relevant permissions (i.e. the hard yards) and then project manages the subsequent developments before selling them on. It operates in the commercial building sector, leisure, residential – its trade wind – and even education; and, at the end of fiscal 2016, it owned or controlled more than 4000 landlocked acres.

Primarily, it operates north of London, with five massive sites in Cambridgeshire and Warwickshire; for example Alconbury Weald and Waterbeach Barracks (replete with sailing lake). Plus it is in Manchester, too, and embryonically Wolverhampton. And the increasingly capital-light housebuilders love UANC – because they can buy oven-ready land which means the sole timetable constraint is putting a brick on a brick. For its part, the Group, under its licence model, provides serviced plots ready to be built on and then receives a third of the sales value when the houses are sold. Nor is UANC prone to household inflation – it simply needs absorption. Typically, too, it will invite two or three housebuilders on to a particular site but also builds a few units of its own so as to see which way the wind is blowing.

The Analyst

About Tony Williams

Tony Williams

Tony Williams has enjoyed an international portfolio career in investment banking (including UBS and Morgan Stanley) and industry, and is also a serial non-executive director. Since 2002, he has led the business consultancy Building Value Ltd which specialises in real estate, construction and support services. Tony divides his time between London and Sweden. Born in New Zealand, he originally studied economics at the Universities of Otago and Manchester. He can be contacted at awilliams@buildingvalueltd.com.

Articles by Tony Williams

Our Partners