Docks Bruxsel, CEUSTERS & Portus Retail

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Docks Bruxsel, CEUSTERS & Portus Retail

Portus Retail describes itself as a specialist property asset management company focused on the investment and management of shopping centres and retail environments across Europe. It says that its shopping centres and retail destinations perform not just for property owners and developers but also for retailers, consumer brands and their customers. They create bespoke solutions for value-added investment.

Founder and Managing Director Peter Todd explains that the role of his company, working alongside CEUSTERS (Property Manager) for Docks Bruxsel, is to set the strategic direction and the vision, financing, business plan… while CEUSTERS is responsible for the operational aspects of the centre, implementing the business plan for example. However, with a hands-on asset manager, says Peter Todd, the dividing line between the two can sometimes become a little blurred.

In this article, we ask Peter Todd to explain more about the success of Docks Bruxsel and all of the elements that have brought this about, and about his working relationship with CEUSTERS. Where shopping centres are concerned, access is quite obviously a major factor, and in this respect one of the most interesting features is the covered walkway provided by the City of Brussels, leading directly from Schaerbeek station to Docks Bruxsel. Along with bringing Train World into the equation, this connection also makes Docks Bruxsel far more easily accessible to those coming from Flanders and elsewhere without needing to use the car.

Strategic decisions

Peter Todd goes on to explain the concept of activations and speciality leasings, which he says are still relatively new in the Belgian shopping centre market: “For instance, speciality leasing is what you would earn in revenues from mall activations, pop-ups, sponsorship. You have to be able to elevate the standard of the activation to attract sponsorship. An example is that we invested in a Christmas ice-rink a few years ago, and we have now promoted it into a bigger event and even to be suitable for corporates”. This makes it a very environmentally friendly ice rink. It is so successful that it attracted 15,000 paying visitors in Christmas of 2022, against 10,000 for the Grand’Place ice rink in Brussels. “And we get sponsorship from large companies such as Samsung, Disney...”

He goes on to say that the investment in the ice-rink was a three to four year plan, starting as a loss leader before becoming profitable. “I don’t think this is the sort of long term decision that a pure property manager alone would feel empowered to make”. And Portus Retail is a co-owner of Docks Bruxsel, which helps in decision-making. “You also have to be ready to continue making investments and adapting”, Peter Todd underlines.

Environmentally- friendly

This leads on to another of the factors which makes Docks Bruxsel stand out from the rest – environmental friendliness to the point of being certified carbon neutral since 2022. This certification was achieved through several environmental initiatives that are unique to Docks; it is due in large part to the photo-voltaic panels (5,000 m2) used for electricity, to the heating of Docks through water heated by the City incinerator burning waste from the City of Brussels. This is located several hundred metres away and brought to Docks by underground pipes before being supplied to all the tenants and units at Docks. Another feature is the recycling of rainwater - used among others for the maintenance of green areas and for the Christmas skating rink. The fact that the centre is directly served by two tram lines, providing access to the city centre in fifteen minutes, is another important point here. This makes the centre an access point to the city centre for people who come from outside of Brussels (especially the north) who can park the car at Docks Bruxsel and go to the city by tram.

But Peter Todd is very aware that it takes a long time to attract people to a new centre, especially in the case of the relatively traditional Belgian consumer. These consumers, especially the younger ones, are looking for sustainable destinations which can offer a full day out with leisure and restaurants as well as retail. Additionally they are willing and more likely to use public transport than traditional shoppers who are still very attached to the car for transport. “And we even have 80,000 bees!!”

Professional collaboration

Moving on to the relationship with CEUSTERS, Peter Todd points out that this is the first operation for Portus Retail in Belgium. “But we were very aware of CEUSTERS,, who have a great reputation and brand”. He also says that Portus Retail saw Docks Bruxsel as a long term opportunity for them and their capital partners to invest in a mixed use urban destination and that CEUSTERS is an ideal property professional to work in partnership with. “I am very happy about the collaboration with CEUSTERS, they are super-professional and they are a nice team to work with. They work with us, with excellent collaboration and they are open to new ideas and suggestions by us, as well as being ready to put ideas and suggestions on the table themselves. They are also quite ready to say when they think something won’t work well, and we listen because they understand the local market and the Belgian retail market very well. They are excellent and have been incredibly professional in terms of accounting, and we respect and admire their reporting and the approach of their financial team. In my experience of working with property managers in Belgium, they are the best in the country by a long way. So my only regret is that we should have started working with them sooner!”

CEUSTERS is looking at new opportunities in the Netherlands (where they are already active) and Peter Todd says he would be very happy to work with them again here or in other countries) if an opportunity suitable to Portus Retail should present itself or be unearthed. But one of the factors that Portus Retail takes into account is any potential conflict of interest between existing business and new opportunities. So Peter Todd would always turn down opportunities, however attractive they may sound, if they fell into this category. Everything is considered on a case by case basis. Portus Retail is always on the look-out for new opportunities, however, but always in larger cities of regional interest.

Unique centre

To the question of what he liked about Docks Bruxsel, Peter Todd says: “I liked the design, and I liked the fact that it was the only shopping centre in Brussels to be less than forty years old at the time. It was not dependent on a department store or supermarket anchor tenant, and it had great ESG potential. It also had a high leisure element, 6,500 m2 of offices, a cinema, Docks Dome (a 4,000 m2 events hall)…”

In fact 23% of the space is event and leisure space of one sort or another, whereas the next highest percentage in Belgium is 4%! To highlight the importance of this, Peter Todd quotes another truism: “People spend money where they spend time”. It is always necessary to give people a reason to come to your centre, is his view, and he is totally informed as to the potential offering of other existing and upcoming shopping centres around Brussels. He expects to see some of the new shopping centres becoming more residential-led, not just shopping-leisure centres.

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