I t’s not every day, or every decade, even, that Charleston lands a billion-dollar real estate deal.
One such rare fish came swimming along last week in the form of Plum Creek Timber Co.
The Seattle-based real estate investment firm announced that it’s buying 610,000 acres of timberland and other property from MeadWestvaco Corp.
The $1.1 billion deal wasn’t a shocker. MeadWestvaco announced earlier this year it was seeking a buyer for its real estate to unearth the money it had planted decades ago to help feed its paper mills with pine fiber.
And it seems to have found a suitable purchaser in Plum Creek Timber, which is among the largest private U.S. landowners.
But it’s a significant enough transaction that it was a hot topic on separate conference calls that the buyer and seller held with Wall Street analysts last week. And Charleston was featured prominently in both discussions, now that Plum Creek is becoming MeadWestvaco’s partner in two high-profile developments spanning 109,000 acres in the region.
Plum Creek CEO Rick Holley explained that the smaller of the joint ventures will require a “modest” $12 million investment. Under that deal, the company is acquiring a 5 percent stake in about 22,000 acres that MeadWestvaco is already working on, including the mixed-use Nexton community near Summerville.
“This includes residential and commercial properties that are well-advanced and often involve vertical development,” Holley said. “MeadWestvaco will continue to control and operate this venture. Plum Creek will participate in the profits of this venture, but have no further operating or capital contribution obligations.”
The second partnership is much bigger and more hands-on. Holley said that $140 million investment “is right in Plum Creek’s traditional development wheelhouse.”
“We want to be a 50-50 partner with MeadWestvaco, seeking to capture and create value on 87,000 acres of high-value development lands located west and northwest of Charleston,” he said, referring to the long-term East Edisto project.
Plum Creek investors will recognize the company’s plan for that swath, Holley added.
“In the venture, Plum Creek will manage these joint-venture lands for continued timber production until the land is sold,” he said. “In some cases, we expect the venture to pursue an outright sale strategy for these development-quality lands.”
In others, MeadWestvaco will seek “to significantly increase the value of the land” by obtaining appropriate zoning approvals ahead of a sale.
Asked whether the timberlands or the development ventures will yield the fatter pay-off, Holley took the middle ground.
“I think, we’ll find it in both,” he said. “I think, the Charleston market ... as the general economy in the country ... improves over time, I think, we’re going to find a lot of value there. But I think, more importantly ... we’re going to look back five years and say, ‘God, we created a lot of value on these very good timberlands.’”
MeadWestvaco, naturally, praised the deal on its call as well, though CEO John Luke stressed that the papermaker-turned-high-end packaging company isn’t exiting the local real estate business.
Even after the sale, he said, shareholders “will continue to participate in a very attractive upside potential of our well-located development properties in South Carolina, especially the Nexton and East Edisto projects.”
He added that Ken Seeger, who runs MeadWestvaco’s real estate business from Summerville, “will continue to lead the implementation with the backing of the MWV brand in the community.”
Looking ahead, Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst George Staphos raised the inevitable “what now” question for Luke, who engineered the sale of MeadWestvaco’s emblematic North Charleston paper mill in 2008 after more than 70 years of ownership.
Staphos pointed out that the highly profitable land unit has served for years as “a shock absorber of sorts,” by helping to cushion the blows when the manufacturing side of the company took a hit.
“So now that it’s going to be gone and you’re not going to have that level of earnings and cash flow, what changes should we see, if any … in terms of how MeadWestvaco further makes its … ongoing recurring businesses more effective, more urgently run and so on?” he asked.
Luke responded that the Richmond, Va.-based company has had some wake-up calls that “reinforced to us the imperative of operating productively and efficiently.”
“We’re operating with greater discipline,” he said.
Reach John McDermott at 937-5572.
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