Blackstone plans to double-down on its Europe real estate investments—but in London, it already has an upper-hand as WeWork locations have fallen



Blackstone has grand plans for Europe. The founder of the world’s largest owners of commercial real estate, Steve Schwarzman, said earlier this week that the firm will focus on expanding its holdings across European markets, “whether they’re data centers, warehouses or student housing.”

But as far as the company’s operations in the London real estate market are concerned, Blackstone is already a leader of sorts—it has more flexible office locations in the city’s central zones than the co-working pioneer WeWork, Bloomberg reported Wednesday.

The private equity group, which recently hit $1 trillion in assets under management, has a number of flexible office spaces in London through The Office Group. Blackstone bought a majority interest in The Office Group in 2017 at a valuation of $640 million. Last year, The Office Group merged with Brockton Capital’s Fora, which was valued at £1.5 billion ($1.9 billion) at the time of the merger, Bloomberg reported citing a person with knowledge of the matter. 

Blackstone declined to comment further on the current valuation of the merged entity. 

Fora, now part of parent brand The Office Group, boasts over 70 locations, 61 of which are located in Central London, according to a press release given to Fortune announcing its move to rebrand all its workspaces under the “Fora” brand.

WeWork, on the other hand, has about 36 locations in Central London, based on the listings on its website—down from its peak of 50, according to Bloomberg. WeWork’s holdings have shrink since 2017 in an effort to exit loss-making locations.

“The steady recovery that we have seen in this business over the past two years, including a recent return to pre-Covid occupancy levels, has continued in the final quarters of the year,” James Seppala, head of European real estate at Blackstone, said in a statement. “This gives us significant confidence in its prospects moving forward.”

Silver lining for flexible work spaces

The pivot to hybrid work culture has augmented the need for more flexible spaces as employees prioritize freedom of where and how they work, making it a critical moment for the likes of The Office Group. 

“We’ve definitely seen increased demand for workspaces like ours, as businesses are navigating what the new normal means to them in the post-pandemic working world and recognising that the workplace is a key driver of their business success,” Fora CEO Enrico Sanna said in a statement to Fortune. The group has seen revenues rise by 30% to September, on a year-on-year basis, driven by the appetite for flexible offices. 

Blackstone and Brockton Capital-held The Office Group’s upper-hand in London comes as WeWork faces uncertainty about its future after it filed for bankruptcy in the U.S. While that won’t directly affect operations outside America and Canada, it still raises questions about how WeWork will navigate challenges related to member churn, mounting debt and financial losses. It also sent shockwaves through the rest of the commercial real estate property market, which has already been reeling from the demise of in-office work as we knew them.  

WeWork has undertaken a process to renegotiate its leases globally to drop “unfit and underperforming locations” and double-down on the more profitable parts of its portfolio, CEO David Tolley said in a letter. 

WeWork didn’t immediately return Fortune’s request for comment. 

London’s reeling commercial property market

London is no exception to the enormous shift in work patterns in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic—office vacancies have shot up to new highs, according to data from commercial real estate company CoStar cited by the Financial Times. London is in a “rental recession” as a result of historic lows in office occupancy in some of its key business districts such as the City and Canary Wharf, investment bank Jefferies said in September.  

There are still big hurdles for the market in London City as investment plummeted 64% in the third quarter of 2023 compared to the same time a year ago, data from JLL last month revealed.  

“The level of capital invested in Central London offices at the end of September is at profoundly low levels, however 2023 is still likely to exceed the historically low levels of investment in 2008/9 just pre and post the GFC,” Julian Sandbach, JLL’s head of central London capital markets, said in a statement, adding that there are a few bright spots amid the slowdown. 

”We are optimistic that London has seen the majority of value reduction, and encouragingly we are seeing levels of transactions under offer to buyers increasing.”

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