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kopi-C with Sasseur REIT’s CEO: ‘Consumption downgrade benefits us’

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31 Jan 2024

Sasseur REIT, which focuses on outlet malls in China, has achieved strong growth despite the country’s economic slowdown. Cecilia Tan, Chief Executive Officer of the REIT, explains how.

Sasseur REIT CEO

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kopi-C is a regular column by SGX Research in collaboration with Beansprout, a MAS-licensed investment advisory platform, that features C-level executives of leading companies listed on SGX. These interviews are profiles of senior management aimed at helping investors better understand the individuals who run these corporations.

Business is booming in China’s outlet malls as more consumers try to save money amidst the country’s slowing economic growth. In 2022, 23 new outlet malls had opened, adding to the 230 outlet malls which were already in operation that year. By the third quarter of 2023, sales at China’s outlet malls have surged 26.3 per cent year-on-year versus the same period in 2022, enabling the sector to outperform the general retail market.

All this is leading to a bumper year for Sasseur REIT, which has been listed on the Singapore Exchange’s mainboard since 2018 and invests mainly in outlet malls in China. It achieved an 18.9 per cent year-on-year increase in tenant sales for the first nine months of 2023, significantly better than China’s general retail benchmark which rose only 6.8 per cent.

For Cecilia Tan, Chief Executive Officer of Sasseur REIT, the strong showing is a testament to the canny decision to focus its portfolio on outlet malls. 

“When people want to save money without compromising their lifestyle, they turn to outlet malls. At such malls, consumers can stretch their purchasing power by buying high-end, mid-range and mass market brands. So a general consumption downgrade actually benefits us with our outlet malls’ clear value-for-money proposition,” she explains.

sasseur reit outlet china mall
Shoppers at Sasseur (Chongqing Bishan) Outlet. Image source: Sasseur REIT

Stronger through an experienced sponsor with deep expertise

Within the outlet mall industry, Sasseur REIT has the lead over its rivals too. Sasseur Group (known as 砂之船集团 in China), its sponsor, was among the first to operate outlet malls in China’s tier two and three cities at the early start of the outlet mall industry in China which began in 2002, with Founder and Chairman Vito Xu sensing an immense opportunity in the underserved markets.

“He saw that Chinese consumers in these cities have great aspirations to own but couldn’t pay full price for the international brands and high fashion readily available in tier one cities. Outlet malls was the answer,” Tan says.

As Sasseur Group expands its asset-light business model to manage more of such outlet malls in China – it currently operates 17 outlets in many tier two cities such as Chongqing, Hefei and Kunming, with Sasseur REIT owning four of them – it also differentiated them from competitors by incorporating art and commerce, Xu’s passions, in the architectural designs of the outlet malls and carefully curated promotional events, alongside unique lifestyle experiential spaces such as an indoor zoo, a strawberry farm and farmers’ markets.

Strategic asset enhancement initiatives have also increased the outlet malls’ attractiveness. These include the conversion of the fifth level office space of Sasseur REIT’s Chongqing Liangjiang outlet into income-generating retail spaces, and the construction of a second entrance to the REIT’s Chongqing Bishan outlet to boost its visibility from a highway and ease traffic congestion during peak periods.

“Sasseur Group not only enjoyed first mover advantages by being among the early entrants into these markets, but entrenched its competitive edge over time. We are fortunate to have a sponsor that is an expert, a leader and, to a large degree, one of the best-in-class in the space that it operates in,” Tan highlights.

sasseur reit vito xu
Mr Vito Xu, Founder of Sasseur Group. Image source: Sasseur REIT

More resilience through enhancing capital structure

When Tan took on the position of Sasseur Asset Management’s chief executive officer in August 2021 after two years as Xu’s senior strategic advisor based in Singapore, she also put her over 20 years of experience in investment banking and real estate-related professions to use.

Her first priority after joining, was to make the REIT more resilient by improving its capital structure. At that time, all of its loans, totalling S$488 million, were slated to mature on the same day in March 2023 in the traditional bullet maturity structure. “This was very scary to think about. I thought that we could not allow this to continue, so I began to formulate a refinancing strategy when I first came on board,” she says.

After successfully completing the loan refinancing in early 2023, the refinanced loans now have staggered maturity dates that range from 2025 to 2028. Some of her colleagues were highly skeptical of her refinancing strategy to break up the loans into different maturities and to create a few loan portfolios instead of a single loan portfolio. She was, however, certain of success that she would be able to convince the lenders to accept her refinancing strategy. “I think that has to do with me having an investment banking background where I have done many capital raising transactions. It gave me the confidence that I could do this and persuade banks to do this, as it’s a matter of understanding the risks and how to mitigate them.”

The Sasseur Group’s support, which included providing an unsecured loan of RMB 308 million (about S$58 million), was crucial. “By the REIT taking the loan from the sponsor, we signalled to the market that our sponsor not only remains financially very robust and strong in China, but also stands by us and the REIT. In fact, it gave us the window of opportunity to showcase our sponsor’s financial strength, their confidence in and alignment of interest with the long-term growth of Sasseur REIT.”

sasseur reit outlet mall
Sasseur (Xi’an) Outlet. Image source: Sasseur REIT

Growing through diversification

Tan also has other plans for Sasseur REIT. “When I look at the next three to five years, I think China still has a lot to offer despite the current uncertain economic outlook for China.”

Consultancy giant McKinsey’s 2023 China Consumer Report, based on a nationwide survey of over 6,700 Chinese consumers and other data, found that, in general, consumers are switching to cheaper channels and more aggressively seeking discounts and promotions. McKinsey has also forecast that outlet sales in China could reach as much as RMB 390 billion by 2025, up from RMB 210 billion in 2022.

“The structural change in consumption spending, with more people turning to outlet malls, is probably also going to last a while, as long as China’s property crisis isn’t resolved. Property is such an important component of the Chinese economy that it has a lot of consequential and spill-over effects,” Tan adds.

Still, the REIT must look beyond China in the future. “As much as China has a lot of potential, I’m very sensitive to the concentration risks of being in a single country, so at some point we would look for suitable opportunities to venture out of China. Diversification provides some value to enhancing the resilience of the REIT in the long term for it to better withstand market cycles and volatility.”

She points out that the REIT’s mandate, to invest in a diverse portfolio of income-producing real estate which is used primarily for retail outlet purposes, is a global one, even if its initial focus is on Asia. The outlet mall sector is an international one too, with origins in the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia, so there are plenty of opportunities beyond China.

“We want to get our China assets to a certain level of scale and performance, and with that, we will have a good base to start looking elsewhere. That is my long-term vision for Sasseur REIT.”

Cecilia Tan Sasseur REIT
 Cecilia Tan presenting at a REITs panel discussion. Image source: Sasseur REIT

About Sasseur REIT

Sasseur REIT is the first retail outlet mall REIT listed in Asia. SasseurREIT offers investors the unique opportunity to invest in the fast-growing retail outlet mall sector in China through its initial portfolio of four quality retail outlet mall assets strategically located in fast-growing Chinese cities such as Chongqing, Kunming and Hefei, with a combined net lettable area of 310,241 square metres.

Sasseur REIT is established with the investment strategy to invest principally, directly or indirectly, in a diversified portfolio of income-producing real estate which is used primarily for retail outlet mall purposes, as well as real estate-related assets in relation to the foregoing, with an initial focus on Asia.

For more information on Sasseur REIT, please visit http://www.sasseurreit.com/ 

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