JF2654: Industrial CRE: Find Your Competitive Advantage with Neil Wahlgren
The industrial sector can be hard to market to potential investors, but Neil Wahglen has found a way to ensure his company stands out from the rest. From their sale-leaseback strategy, to their unique, storytelling marketing, Neil has been able to not only bring in but maintain long term relationships with high-net-worth investors. In this episode, Neil details how these strategies came together to help him find his competitive advantage in the industrial space.
Neil Wahglen Real Estate Background
- Works full-time as COO at MAG Capital Partners and is an Industrial Sponsor.
- He has 8 years of real estate investing experience and is both active and passive.
- Portfolio: $350M of industrial, single tenant net leased (NNN) commercial.
- Background: commissioned officer and pilot in the US Air Force and Navy.
- Based in San Francisco, California
- You can find him at www.magcp.com | email@example.com
Joe Fairless: Best Ever listeners, how are you doing? Welcome to the Best Real Estate Investing Advice Ever Show. I’m Joe Fairless. This is the world’s longest-running daily real estate investing podcast where we only talk about the best advice ever, we don’t get into any fluffy stuff. With us today, Neil Wahlgren. How are you doing Neil?
Neil Wahlgren: I’m doing great. Thanks for having me, Joe.
Joe Fairless: I’m glad to hear it. It’s my pleasure. Neil works full-time as COO at Mag Capital Partners, they are focused on industrial products. He has eight years of real estate investing experience, both active and passive. Their portfolio is 350 million dollars’ worth of industrial triple net lease commercial. His background – he’s was commissioned officer and pilot in the US Air Force and Navy. Thank you, sir, for everything you did for our country, you, and your colleagues. I sincerely mean that. Neil is based in San Francisco, California. You can check out their website, magcp.com. It’s also in the show notes. With that being said, Neil, do you want to get the Best Ever listeners a little bit more about your background and your current focus?
Neil Wahlgren: Yeah, absolutely. Like you mentioned, a slightly non-standard track to finding commercial real estate. California native, I grew up just outside of San Francisco, I really grew up in the suburbs, a little bored out there… I decided I need some excitement, I went to the Air Force Academy, went on to fly a number of planes, but primarily the C-130, the Hercules. I flew that full-time for the Air Force, and then part-time for the Navy, and the reserves, been to over 100 countries, two combat deployments, to Iraq and Afghanistan. It was just a great, maturing and experiential process in my 20s. That was the right thing at the right moment there. Ultimately, I did that for altogether about 10 years, and kind of hit a transition point where you start looking, hitting that point your life, you’re like, “Alright, can I keep doing what I’m doing now and hit really my goals for all the things I want to do?”
The more I was in a flying world, the more and more I realized my time was stuck two hours in the cockpit, which was stuck to time away from home and not being able to build that family work-life balance that I was hoping for. That was my catalyst for effectively transitioning out of aviation and out of the military side, and somewhat serendipitously ended up running into a family friend, right at that transition point, who had built up kind of an equity-focused, really investor-focused arm of commercial real estate. They had a model where they would effectively partner with developers, operators, and brokers who had a very niche skillset for commercial real estate deals, but didn’t necessarily have that capital component. So we would JV with them on a deal-by-deal basis. That was effectively how I got my feet wet and jumped into commercial real estate about eight or nine years ago.
Joe Fairless: What was your role eight or nine years ago? I know it’s evolved. I assume it’s evolved since. What was it at the beginning?
Neil Wahlgren: At first, it was operations. Kind of bringing that very structured checklist – discipline, multi-component experience of flying, and really piloting and managing a multi-crew aircraft. The founder was skilled at certain parts, but that operational piece, he knew he had a hole to fill. I came in on that side, really just working internally, and then slowly grew and built out a team. Through that process, we ended up growing our holdings and portfolio in about four years by about 10x. So it was a really fast-growth profile, and I learned just firehose effects. We got to see and underwrite through everything, from multifamily, to industrial, to commercial, multi-tenant retail, even some ground-up development stuff… So I really got to see a ton of different types of commercial real estate and a bunch of different partners, and I really got to see and really hone in on what is the type of real estate that I love here, what stands out amongst the rest, and what operating teams do I find exceptional? Ultimately, one of those groups was Mag Capital, who I had the opportunity to join up with full-time about four years ago.
Joe Fairless: And we’ll get to that. Just so I’m clear, you said you first started doing operations, and slowly grew from there. What specifically were you doing when you started out?
Neil Wahlgren: When I first came in, it was a bit of chaos. It was just emails, it was a lot of projects. There was, I would say, ineffective communication going on between investment partners, between operator partners. Really it was just – start from the ground up and every day was “Alright, let’s build this checklist out to have a rhythm, a flow, monthly check in meetings, set up standards and consistencies with both investors and with operator partners, set up expectations, and really start delivering on time or early on what we said we would do.” That was really a major piece that was missing on this firm when I came in, and really setting up that relentless, methodical approach toward day-to-day operations, which slowly grew weekly, monthly, and an annual forecast was ultimately what allowed us to grow.
Joe Fairless: As COO, what are the KPIs that you’re evaluated by?
Neil Wahlgren: Great question. My primary focus is in capital markets. We’re vertically integrated at MAG. We not only broker and source our own deal opportunities, but we also fund with our internal investment partners. So I am graded and effectively judged by how well we can effectively pair those two pieces.
Joe Fairless: What two pieces?
Neil Wahlgren: Both the deal side and the equity side; cash and deals. Effectively, you need to be skilled and efficient at doing both, but more so you need to be balanced and be able to find the right flow to say “Hey, am I looking ahead? What’s my deal flow pipeline look like? Am I preparing adequately on the investor side?” It’s everything from, are we able to get the right deal flow for what our investors are asking for? How many deals per year are we able to fund effectively and quickly? Are we able to do it in a way that commitments turn into true-funded positions? All these granular details of a COO are probably the most important components of the position.
Joe Fairless: That’s a lot of responsibility, first off. Assuming that I’m interpreting what you said correctly, does that mean that you’re responsible for finding the deals, and does that also mean you’re responsible for finding the money to fund those deals?
Neil Wahlgren: We have more the latter. So we have two principals, Dax Mitchell and Andrew Gi, who come from a brokerage, a broker background, and also from an effectively commercial real estate appraisal background. They run our acquisitions team, they’re sourcing, they’re using multi-decade relationships to put together and find these industrials, single-tenant, net-leased investments that we do. Then ultimately, as those opportunities come and work through the pipeline to the point where, if it makes it all the way through, they become an offering that we want to effectively bring into our investment group – that transition and that alignment of debt partners, equity partners, and ultimately getting a solid deal under contract, that is where my primary focus really is.
Joe Fairless: So I heard debt, equity, and then you said ultimately getting a solid deal under contract. Are you responsible for any part of the negotiations to get the deal under contract once the other two partners identify it?
Neil Wahlgren: Yeah, most of the negotiations are done on a principal level. Our primary way that we’re sourcing deals is actually somewhat unique, in that it’s through sale-leaseback. It’s a very niche way to create opportunities in that space. Unlike other commercial real estate asset types, these projects probably have more work that’s done upfront, because you’re negotiating not only the purchase price of your asset, but also the brand-new lease that you’re putting in place, and kind of the relationship between those two.
Joe Fairless: Elaborate more on that, will you? You said the primary way you’re sourcing deals is by sale-leaseback. So you’re finding them via leasebacks, or that’s just a mechanism that is used to… I don’t even know. Help me understand.
Neil Wahlgren: Sure. A high level of sale-leaseback is when you have… To use an example, the industrial space. Imagine you have a light manufacturing company that operates and owns its own real estate. So a sale-leaseback is when they sell off the real estate that they own and simultaneously lease it back as a tenant. We come in as a buyer and then we transition to the landlord. They are the seller who transitions to the tenant.
Joe Fairless: Got it. So how you find those deals is by seeking out businesses that currently own the land, reaching out to them, and say, “Hey, do you want to sell to us and just lease it back?”
Neil Wahlgren: Typically, not directly. A lot of it is done through broker relationships. Those types of companies — or what happens, most of the time those companies are recently acquired by private equity backers. Those private equity groups are intensely focused on growing the operational component of their new business, less interested in being real estate owners. They will often be the driving force. They’ll either connect with us directly or through broker relationships, and effectively say, “Hey, we just bought this company, we want to basically move the cash into the operation side to grow EBITDA, grow revenues, profitability, etc. So they will sell the real estate, prefer to be in a tenant position, and then redirect that capital into growth metrics.
Joe Fairless: So you’re responsible for debt and equity?
Neil Wahlgren: Yes. We have specific teams on both sides of it.
Joe Fairless: But you’re the one overseeing it?
Neil Wahlgren: Correct.
Joe Fairless: Okay, so let’s talk about equity. I think most of the listeners are interested in that primarily, but we will talk about that too, because that’s something that gets glossed over, but shouldn’t. Equity – what was the last deal you bought,
Neil Wahlgren: We just closed on a five-building 500,000 square foot industrial portfolio with a single tenant. That tenant was a powdered metal parts manufacture; kind of a neat industry. Imagine 3d printing with layers of plastics, but these guys did the same thing with layers of powdered metal. They effectively forge into these complex parts, sell to automotive, aerospace, heavy equipment, etc. We did a sale-leaseback transaction, buying five different buildings, all tenanted by the same company.
Joe Fairless: How much equity was required for that?
Neil Wahlgren: That one, I believe we raised about 10 or 11 million.
Joe Fairless: Okay, let’s say 11. Where did that 11 come from?
Neil Wahlgren: We effectively have really long-term investment partners. It’s a range of family offices, a range of high-net-worth individuals and retail investors, and we ultimately do multiple deals with the same folks.
Joe Fairless: Okay. So the $11 million came from both family offices and high net worth individuals?
Neil Wahlgren: Correct.
Joe Fairless: What percent do high net worth individuals make up of the 11? Approximately.
Neil Wahlgren: Probably the majority, I don’t have the exact numbers.
Joe Fairless: Okay, the majority. And how are you attracting the new individuals? Not the current ones, but new high net worth individuals.
Neil Wahlgren: Having been in this space a long time, my feeling on it is there are two extreme approaches. You can be more of a marketer, or you can be more of an effectively deep relationship, deal focused type of equity relationship. We’ve chosen to be the latter; so we really do very little outside marketing. Almost all of the growth, all the new investment partners that we’ve made are almost probably 99% referrals. It’s effectively devoting resources, devoting time to folks who invest with us on a repeated basis. They effectively bring friends, family colleagues, and that’s been almost 100% of our growth on that side.
Joe Fairless: How, if at all, do encourage or help facilitate referrals?
Neil Wahlgren: Everyone who invests with us is important. There are some people in our network that we’ve found over time really are just phenomenal partners. Not even necessarily the biggest check writers, but people that really believe in the product, believe in our model, believe in our team, and ultimately bring in what I call outsized referral sources. Those, what we’ve found, is really hyper-focusing on those people. Thank you’s, handwritten notes, gifts, taken out… It doesn’t need to be monetary-based either, but just putting attention back into the people that are really helping make you successful. We really put an emphasis on that as a team, and it’s paid dividends, in my opinion.
Joe Fairless: What system do you use to track that?
Neil Wahlgren: A lot of tags; we use a CRM coupled with our investor portal. We meet three times a week, myself and my equity team, and we outline who needs attention, what is the best way to effectively give back, what’s the best way to receive feedback, or solicit feedback… All those pieces done on a very repeatable consistent process is what we’ve found to be the best approach on that.
Joe Fairless: Which CRM do you use? And which investor portal do you use?
Neil Wahlgren: We use a portal CRM company called simPRO. We recently switched over to that system and I’ve been pretty happy.
Joe Fairless: What did you switch over from?
Neil Wahlgren: Juniper Square.
Joe Fairless: Why did you switch?
Neil Wahlgren: I think Juniper Square, in our opinion – not to get too much in the weeds – perhaps focus more on institutional investor relationships than for the type of relationships that we had. We felt we were able to effectively present opportunities, and manage in a more robust manner in terms of metrics, in terms of graphics, in terms of telling the story of these industrial investment opportunities with the simPRO platform.
Joe Fairless: I’m glad you’ve found the right platform. And it’s okay to get into the weeds in this conversation. that’s alright. A lot of investors are looking at different options so this is helpful. As far as the focus, it might have been a little more focused on institutional investors. Can you just give a couple of examples for people who are trying to identify “Okay, here’s the type of portal I’m looking for”? Because most listeners for the show, they’re focused on high-net-worth investors as their investors, so this will resonate.
Neil Wahlgren: With any investment, it comes down to telling a story. Effectively, a system should be just a medium that you’re using that allows you to tell your story in a way that’s effective. If you’re effective, if you’ve told that story well in a clear and concise manner, and you have the right amount of trust and backing with your investors, really the equity will fall into place at that point. Industrial can be tricky. I’ll be honest with you, it’s not that sexy. It’s four walls, oftentimes it’s in secondary markets, it’s not flashy, it’s not on the front end of a new development center… Typically, it tends to be really the value and the beauty of it is the relationship between core dirty often manufacturing operations, paired with the real estate that allows that to happen. So to tell that story, we use drone footage, we use some nice imagery, and we like to pair the story of what operation is happening within these four walls, what type of manufacturing? What are the products? Where does this go? How is this integrated in the American industry? Then really couple this investment real estate around that, and pairing those two, using a lot of graphics. We’ve found that that particular platform allowed us to do it best.
Joe Fairless: What about on the debt side? How do you identify the right debt product for… Let’s use an example, the last deal that you did.
Neil Wahlgren: Sure. Honestly, we’ve found a lot of the industrial products that we’re buying – we find opportunity in the seams. We’re buying secondary markets or kind of what I call commutable secondary. It might be the labor force for this manufacturing is in, say, Des Moines or in Champaign, Illinois, some similar-sized city, and then ultimately the asset might be 10 miles outside of town, but that’s okay. If you have the right strength of tenant and the right credit behind it, that can be the most sleep easy, cash-flowing vehicle you can have. But to your point, those types of markets can be sometimes scary or overlooked by national lenders. So what we found is regional lenders, state-level, or Southwest oriented banks, or Midwest oriented banks who know those areas better, have tighter relationships with companies and individuals in those areas – those really, for our type of model and product, are absolutely the best kind of debt partners. So we do repeat business with typically smaller credit unions and banks.
Joe Fairless: Based on your experience, what’s your best real estate investing advice ever?
Neil Wahlgren: I would say that the best advice that I have is find your competitive advantage. If you don’t have a competitive advantage, find out how you’ll get it. If there’s not a clear path to that, find a partner to invest with who does. I think relying on commodity skills without having some outlying advantage really leaves a lot of risk on the table for an investment. So I would say find someone who has an ultra-tight niche and specialty, does it well, and then either partner with them or emulate what they’re doing.
Joe Fairless: Is your competitive advantage the two principles and their background? Is it just being focused on industrial relative to the rest of the commercial real estate world that isn’t…? What would you say?
Neil Wahlgren: I think we as a team, I believe we put together better investments in single-tenant net-leased industrial acquired through sale-leaseback transactions than anyone else.
Joe Fairless: That’s a mouthful. You make that sentence long enough, of course you will be exactly that. [laughter] That makes sense, though. I’m glad that you talked about that. I’m glad that we touched on each of those aspects of it too, since that’s your competitive advantage. We’re going to do a lightning round. Are you ready for the Best Ever lightning round?
Neil Wahlgren: Let’s do it.
Joe Fairless: Best Ever way you like to give back to the community.
Neil Wahlgren: I would say what we’ve talked about before – finding those who put in an outsized effect on your personal development and growth, finding those people, and giving back. So I think we find those folks and shower them with time, with attention, with appreciation, and listen. I think by really taking the interaction level to a higher level with a smaller group of people that are directly responsible for your success – I think that’s what we do best.
Joe Fairless: How can the Best Ever listeners learn more about what you are doing?
Neil Wahlgren: We have a lot of resources on our website, www.magcp.com. Or I’d love to hear feedback, comments, questions from folks as well. You can reach me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joe Fairless: Neil, thanks for being on the show. I enjoy talking about a sector that I do not focus on in the commercial real estate world, because I love being educated on it. So I appreciate that. And hey, even if we’re not focused on this sector, there’s a lot of takeaways that you talked about that can be applied to any aspect of commercial real estate or any aspect of business, quite frankly. So thanks for being on the show. Hope you have a Best Ever day and talk to you again soon.
Neil Wahlgren: Thanks, Joe.
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