Many US corporations ignoring the potential in their real estate

In one booming Texas city, a manufacturing company stores equipment on an open four-acre site less than half a mile from a major shopping, commercial, and office center. The land, which cost 5 cents a square foot to acquire before World War II, is now worth $30 to $40 a square foot.

Another major company - this one in southern California - operates extensive manufacturing facilities on land near a Los Angeles-area airport that could be profitably developed into a higher and better use.

If the factories moved to a more outlying location, the land would be worth $ 20 to $25 a square foot for office and commercial projects. In its current use, it has an economic value of $5 a square foot.

''Ignoring real estate is like a corporation having millions of dollars in a non-interest-bearing checking account,'' declares Christopher Leinberger, president of Robert Charles Lesser & Co., a real estate consulting firm in Beverly Hills, Calif.

In fact, corporate real estate, which is the buildings and land owned by companies that are not primarily in the real estate business, accounts for at least 25 percent of the assets of most American corporations, according to a study by Harvard Real Estate Inc.

Nonetheless, an estimated 60 percent of all American companies do not consistently evaluate the performance of these holdings, which are worth somewhere between $700 billion and $1.5 trillion.

Why have so many American corporations consistently overlooked the potential of their huge real estate assets? The reasons often have little to do with the company's size, type of activity, or value of its real estate.

For some corporations, the management has an indifferent or a we-make-widgets-and-we're-not-in-the-real-estate-business attitude. Other executives want to stay as far away from real estate as possible because so many companies have been badly burned in the volatile market of recent years.

Boise Cascade, for instance, lost $100 million from its home-development efforts when interest rates soared and sales nose-dived in the mid-1970s.

Some executives even view their underutilized real estate as ''corporate mad money,'' a form of financial security. Yet casually managed real estate has recently become anything but secure because of the increasingly stringent and changeable government land-use policies.

When one major corporation recently wanted to enlarge its marina and hotel on the Florida coast by building a residential and commercial complex on the unused part of the property, its executives belatedly discovered that the county was adopting a general plan that would preclude exactly what the company had in mind.

If the corporation's management had followed local Florida politics more closely it might have been able to start the project before the zoning change took effect; or perhaps it could have persuaded the county to permit additional development on the empty portion of the marina and hotel property. But for now, it can do little more than run the existing marina and hotel.

Besides avoiding such calamities, strategic real estate planning can boost a corporation's profits dramatically.

Selling a piece of underutilized property is the most obvious step for a company that wants or needs an infusion of cash. But a sale represents a one-time boost for the corporate bottom line which will not happen again.

Thus, many executives whose companies don't need cash often take a long-run asset-management approach.

''In Denver, one company owned a vacant 16-acre site in an industrial area where the trend now is toward office, commercial, and hotel uses,'' Mr. Leinberger says. ''The management didn't want to pay taxes and insurance for empty land year after year. But it didn't want to 'underbuild' or sell the rapidly appreciating property for its then-current $4 a square foot, either.

''A creative interim solution was leasing the land as a parking lot, which must vacate upon 90 days' notice after the first year of the lease. The corporation receives $500,000-a-year rent while holding onto the land, which should be worth $20 a square foot by 1990.

''Not only does this company have a great investment with no out-of-pocket costs, but it has boosted its immediate bottom line as well.''

As another example of real estate planning, corporations can create value by their very presence.

''In the past, most large companies that wanted to rent a sizable block of newly constructed space in a soft market simply sought good lease terms,'' says Robert F. Davis, executive vice-president of Eastdil Realty Inc. ''Now some corporations are demanding, and getting, equity in a project because they know that the developer needs their lease to obtain financing.''

Some companies take creative planning a step further. Using their land as equity, they are forming joint ventures with commercial developers. In one recent deal, a major corporation received a new lower Manhattan office building and $17 million in cash from a developer in exchange for its underutilized landholdings in the area.

Nor do corporations that built their own office buildings years ago lack opportunities today.

Some that have rented out space to other companies in their buildings now are buying back the leases, then re-renting the space for a profit. The old tenant may not need that space any longer. Or it may want cash. The trick for the building owner is to catch the office market as it swings upward.

''The opportunities of corporate real estate have always been present, like a sleeping giant,'' asserts Mr. Leinberger. ''But in the postwar world of cheap borrowed money and cheap energy, American companies could overlook this asset and still thrive. That era is now gone.

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