Turning a Viennetta into a Magnum!

Our recent sale of Colworth Science Park in Bedford followed five years of successful collaboration with Unilever at the ‘home of the Viennetta’. It was a collaboration that began with Unilever’s desire to sell out of an historic JV ownership structure and bring in a partner aligned to creating value across a range of real estate strategies. With the sale to Fiera Real Estate in 2014, Unilever recognised the entrepreneurial capabilities of Fiera to re-position the park for the next chapter of their seventy-plus years of site occupation. The park has since evolved into one of six Unilever global R&D campuses. Capitalising on one of our key USPs, we brought in Wrenbridge, our Cambridge-based local partner, to drive occupancy, reduce operational costs and explore development opportunities across the 90-acre science park site and surrounding 900 acres of farmland, with the overall vision of creating an institutional asset with new growth opportunities to cement the future of the Park.

Following completion of a day-one value enhancing lease re-gear with Unilever on almost 90% of the income, we agreed a surrender with them of Colworth House, a 20,000 sq ft Grade-II listed former mansion house. From the beginning, a key business plan goal was to open up the park to outside occupiers and foster a collaborative environment for both science and non-science users. To that end, we undertook a refurbishment of Colworth House to create a range of suite sizes and incubator spaces for businesses across sectors including construction, accounting and tech culminating in the addition of c.£280k to the annual income with 76% of space let within three years.

Meanwhile, at the Exchange Building, the EEDA-funded 2011-constructed innovation building housing the on-site conferencing and catering facilities, we worked with Wrenbridge to lease up all available space to tenants including Concepta Diagnostics, Barry Callebaut, AgPlus Diagnostics and Kerry Ingredients. Such was the leasing success, that Wrenbridge were tasked with fitting out 10,000 sq ft of shell space pre-let to flavours house Firmenich, working in partnership with Unilever to secure their customer’s relocation from an outdated facility at Wellingborough. At sale, the Exchange Building was 92% let (v. 53% at purchase) with net income up by £320k pa. Across the park, a tenacious approach to leasing drove overall vacancy from 7.2% at acquisition to 3% by date of sale.

In addition to our capex deployment and lease up strategy, a key initiative for the Fiera Real Estate and Wrenbridge team was to identify viable development opportunities. During our tenure, we worked alongside Unilever to finalise the design of a new 34,000 sq ft Operations Building to facilitate beverage and refreshment R&D, liaised with the Bedford Borough Council on a pre-app to deliver additional housing on 90-acres of undeveloped land within the ownership and secured support for the delivery of a science-based free school (which was subsequently shelved owing to a Governmental policy-change). Perhaps most importantly, we progressed a Masterplan for the delivery of up to 4,500 homes and associated infrastructure including a new train station and access road on the 900 acres of surrounding Unilever-owned farmland, thus ensuring our relationship with Unilever continues beyond the sale of the park itself. This farmland had been earmarked for sale until Fiera Real Estate and Wrenbridge identified a shortage of housing in Bedfordshire and the opportunity to put the site forward in a call for sites.

Identifying development and leasing strategies were just two ways in which we brought our expertise to bear across a complex site. Over time, we also successfully transformed the Park from being single let to a vibrant, multi-occupant environment taking some of the valuable experience from transforming Discovery Park in Kent, the former Pfizer European R&D HQ. Together with Wrenbridge and working closely with Unilever all the time, we created an institutional model of property management through the modernisation of site security systems, the reduction of significant site running costs, the enhancement of onsite conference and catering facilities and creation of an operationally efficient service charge model that shared site staff between Unilever and the Park common parts. In total, optimisation of site services and leasing initiatives resulted in a 15% increase in net income.

Following five years of partnering with Unilever and delivery of the day one business plan, we felt it an opportune time to exit the investment. With in-house asset management expertise and the ability to leverage local development capabilities through our local partnering model, we were able to fulfil Unilever’s brief by re-positioning the Park. We leave behind a vibrant, multi-let science and business park at near full occupancy, an institutional investment positioned for growth as new occupiers are inevitably drawn to its strategic location in the middle of the Oxford/Cambridge arc. Meanwhile, our journey with Unilever continues as we work together to promote the 900 acres of farmland for residential development to meet Bedford Borough Council’s shortfall over the short to medium term, therefore ensuring a lasted mixed-use legacy.

This case study was written by Anne-Marie Keane, Director at Fiera Real Estate. 

See more on our Colworth Park case study here