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Cashed up property developer Willis Bond Capital Partners buys Wellington's John Chambers Building, eyes Auckland

Cashed up property developer Willis Bond Capital Partners buys Wellington's John Chambers Building, eyes Auckland

By Gareth Vaughan

After raising NZ$128 million from institutional investors and wealthy individuals including Sam Morgan last year, Willis Bond Capital Partners has made its first investment buying the John Chambers Building on the Wellington waterfront.

Mark McGuinness, Willis Bond Capital Partners managing director, told his firm had also gone unconditional on the purchase of an office tower on Lambton Quay. But because that deal isn't due to settle until the middle of February, he declined to comment further on it.

The John Chambers Building, a heritage building built in 1918, has been purchased from Land Equity Group for a price “comfortably in the millions,” McGuinness said.

Willis Bond Capital Partners was formed last year by Willis Bond & Company Ltd to capitalise on "attractive" development and investment opportunities in commercial real estate. After raising NZ$128 million from three institutional investors including the New Zealand Superannuation Fund and high net worth individuals such as Trade Me founder Morgan, Willis Bond Capital Partners is one of few cashed up commercial property investors active in the current depressed market.

"It’s a good time to be very strongly capitalised," said McGuinness.

Willis Bond Capital Partners is managed by Willis Bond Management Ltd, a subsidiary of Willis Bond & Co. The latter was formed in 1988. In partnership with Morrison & Co, Willis Bond & Co formed private equity fund manager Pencarrow Funds Management in 1993. A year later the two also jointly formed Property For Industry. Since then Willis Bond & Co has focused on mixed-use - residential, office and retail - developments within New Zealand.

Willis Bond Capital Partners' directors include former New Zealand cricketer Roger Twose, ex-AMP Capital Investors managing director Murray Gribben, former Ernst & Young partner Graeme Horsley and its chairman is ex-Telecom general counsel Mark Verbiest.

McGuinness said Willis Bond had already done a lot of work upgrading Wellington heritage buildings given it had already redeveloped the NZX building, the Free Ambulance Building and the Wellington Brewing Company building.

"And this one [the John Chambers Building] we’ve always been very keen to buy because we saw it completing a cluster of some very beautiful old buildings and it would have been a real tragedy if it had gone," said McGuinness.

Willis Bond will now oversee a "costly" refurbishment, with the building being completely gutted and strengthened to the standard of a new building, he added.

The top floor has already been leased to Morrison & Co, the manager of Infratil, who will move in towards the end of the year.

McGuinness said Willis Bond was also working on "a couple of very interesting deals in Auckland" and hoped to close them during first six months of the year.

"We are very much in investment mode. Tenants still need space and people still need a place to live. We’re launching the (Wellington) Overseas Passenger Terminal Apartments in the next couple of weeks. That's a major project, we've been working on it for some years."

He said there had been 550 registrations of interest in the about 70 apartments on on Clyde Quay Wharf.

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