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Startup to Stock Exchange in 4 Years: How an African Real Estate Company Showed Grit

In just four years, YPO member Bronwyn Corbett guided her company, the Grit Real Estate Income Group, from startup to multinational corporation. And the future looks no less intense. Corbett’s aim is for Grit to be the leading real estate owner on the African continent outside of South Africa by 2023.

That goal came a step closer to reality at 08:30 on 31 July 2018, when Grit was listed on the main market of the London Stock Exchange (LSE).

For Corbett, the listing was a vital part of her overall strategy. “We want to institutionalize a real estate platform where investors can have access into growth markets in Africa but take away a lot of the perceived African governance risks,” she says. “Taking the main listing to London is reassuring for investors. It helps position Grit as an investment stock, because investors know that absolutely vigorous due diligence has been undertaken.”

Prior to the LSE listing, Grit owned approximately 3.3 million square feet in gross lettable space in 20 major properties across seven African countries, with a total value of approximately USD588.10 million. Its diverse portfolio includes malls in Zambia, commercial offices in Mozambique, resorts in Mauritius and warehouses in Kenya.

An expanding portfolio

The listing brought USD132 million of new capital into Grit, part of which was used to acquire new assets, including properties in Ghana and Mozambique. This will add an additional 252,300 square feet of gross rental space to the portfolio.

The bulk of this portfolio is in countries that offer what Grit sees as stable and well-established returns. Corbett cites Botswana, Mauritius, and Morocco where, she says, there’s an ease to doing business, owning land and moving money in and out. Such countries, says Corbett, have sophisticated real estate markets, which helps with securing good property yields, international tenants and international capital. Then there’s “growth Africa”, the other side of the portfolio, which includes countries like Ghana and Uganda, which Corbett sees as more challenging but very promising hard-growth markets. With this two-sided approach, Grit is targeting a return of approximately 12 percent per annum.

The Africa advantage

Corbett spotted the potential opportunities in this sector early in her career. “I originally studied as a chartered accountant and was involved in real estate in South Africa from a very young age,” she says. “A lot of South African real estate companies were looking at alternative investments outside the country, in Eastern Europe, the United Kingdom and Australia.” She and her business partner saw things differently, realizing the opportunities across Africa. And that’s really where the idea for Grit was born: to partner with international corporations to become their real estate partners on the continent.

“Grit is built on having a first-mover advantage in a lot of regions in Africa, which we believe is really the last frontier for real estate.”  — Bronwyn Corbett, CEO Grit Real Estate Income Group.

Making the idea a reality wasn’t straightforward as Corbett didn’t start her business coming from one of the big real estate companies in South Africa. Now that Grit is established, however, Corbett is reaping the rewards of having zigged while everyone else was zagging. “Grit is built on having a first-mover advantage in a lot of regions in Africa, which we believe is really the last frontier for real estate,” she says.

Other companies are eyeing Grit’s ascent with interest — and a little envy. “We are now seeing a lot more South African real estate companies looking at our model and saying, ‘Hang on, have we missed something here?’” says Corbett. “We’ve seen some of the bigger guys launching similar vehicles, but they really are five or six years behind where we are, and for the next few years we will have first-mover advantage.”

 

Tamassa Resort, Mauritius

Keys to success

One reason for Grit’s success is choosing Mauritius, a tropical island nation off the east coast of Africa, as its base for operations. “Mauritius set itself up with very favorable tax treaties with all the countries that we transact with,” says Corbett. “Other countries, including South Africa, have lost a lot of business because it’s a lot easier to work out of Mauritius.”

Another key early decision was to have strong female representation on the executive team, which includes having the most female board members out of any listed real estate company from Africa on the London Exchange. “We have a culture that supports women, we all have young kids and families, and we’ve created an environment that is very conducive to being able to work from home or from wherever you are in the world, which allows us to get really tough women into the business,” Corbett says.

Dogged determination

This nurturing of resilience is part of the reason behind the company name: Corbett expects her executives, empowered to balance work and family life, to bring grit and dogged determination to their business dealings. She also believes significant female representation gives the company an edge in building relationships.

While Grit is growing swiftly, the personal touch remains vital. “We do all our own leasing in most of the jurisdictions, as well as our own property and facilities management, so people are investing in a team that’s very hands-on,” says Corbett.

All of which means she won’t be taking her own hand off the tiller in the near future. “When you’re dealing with a lot of these high-end individuals and tenants, they want to deal with you personally because that’s who they have the relationship with,” she says. “It takes a long time to form these relationships, so I don’t think I’ll be getting away from the heart of the action anytime soon.”

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