Opus executives see opportunity in commercial real estate turmoil

Andy Deckas, an executive at Minnetonka-based Opus Corp., is surveying a commercial real-estate landscape littered with distressed properties, high vacancy rates, plunging market values and bankruptcies, including a few former Opus companies.

Cautious but optimistic, he said he is anxious “to get back on offense and take advantage of distressed conditions” in the commercial real estate market.

Deckas will head up a new investment fund, Founders Properties LLC , which teams Best Buy founder, chairman and retired CEO Richard Schulze with Opus Corp. founder and veteran real-estate developer Gerry Rauenhorst as financial backers. 

Deckas said the U.S. commercial real estate market is showing “early signs of establishing a bottom … The question is how quick a bounce back” the market will experience. After months of inactivity he is seeing “lots of showings, lots of leases being signed.” However, he cautioned that he is “not overly excited about rental rates.”

Unwilling to forecast a quick turnaround, he said the market might rebound “in a month, in six months, in a year.”

As he sees equity and debt markets opening up, he wants to be positioned “even if we’re a little bit early.” Deckas said he is ‘looking at the opportunity to buy at levels we haven’t seen in years … [and the market] is at the early edge of the opportunity.”

High unemployment has reduced the demand for office space across the country and landlords, anxious to hang on to paying tenants, are cutting rents. Bankruptcies of major retailers, such as Circuit City and Linens ‘N Things, have emptied out retail locations, and the overbuilt condo market in some areas has strained developers’ balance sheets. As a result, commercial real estate values have declined, by some estimates as much as 45 percent from their peak.

With very few sales and a lack of comparable market data, Deckas said, “it’s hard to authenticate” those estimates, but he acknowledged that the commercial real-estate market still has some pain and adjustments ahead. He predicted that “more bank failures, more economic distress,” will be required before lenders are willing to let properties go at bargain prices. “Founders Properties is well positioned to pursue the unprecedented commercial real-estate opportunities resulting from the market upheaval of the past year,” he added.

Founders Properties will focus on commercial office and warehouse distribution space, but Deckas would not rule out retail or multi-unit residential properties. “We’ll look at everything,” he said. “We’ve owned plenty of retail space in the past,” he said, pointing out that partner and Best Buy founder Richard Schulze “knows plenty about retail.”

Deckas said that they have “plenty of capital” from private investors and expect to invest several hundred million dollars into projects over the next few years. “The bigger focus for us is finding the transactions.”

With a convoluted history, the new investment fund is managed by executives from Opus Properties, which was the investment fund arm of Opus Corp. As the former real-estate development giant struggles with bankruptcy of three of its operating entities and resulting lawsuits, Deckas is quick to distance the new fund from the former Opus development entities. But he also remains president of Opus Properties, which manages two surviving investment funds.

Three separate Opus Corp. real-estate development operating companies filed for bankruptcy last year. Atlanta-based Opus South was hit by the Florida condominium market collapse. Washington, D.C.-based Opus East and Phoenix-based Opus West got caught in the general credit squeeze and declining commercial real estate values. A $150 million lawsuit was filed by creditors against Opus Corp. and several trusts and individuals. Minneapolis-based Opus Northwest has announced it is seeking recapitalization. Maplewood-based Lighthouse Management Group was brought in to manage the liquidation of the bankrupt entities and Opus Northwest.

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