Six years ago, Peter Noack and his business partner were sitting in the conference room at Peter’s wife’s law firm when they decided to set up a new company. “It wasn’t exactly like the garage startups that became today’s big tech companies, but it was certainly a little different when we started out,” he says.
Today, Zeitgeist Asset Management has 40 staff in three offices and manages a large portfolio of real estate projects for institutional clients, with properties in Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. While they were grinding away in the borrowed conference room, Peter and Zeitgeist’s Co-Founder Sebastian Junghänel envisioned the firm as a hotel management company.
However, they soon found more exciting opportunities in acquiring old buildings and adding value by renovating them or adding extensions, mostly for the residential sector. The company has carved out a niche in an area that many investors have been nervous about for a long time: renovating historic buildings.
As a result, Zeitgeist’s portfolio consists of apartments, student accommodation and offices housed in unique buildings, often in beautiful, high-value areas.
The right talent
When Peter started Zeitgeist, he already had 14 years of experience working in institutional real estate – an area where he put his law degree to good use. He says he gained a comprehensive overview of all the steps involved in acquiring, renovating and leasing properties.
In his previous roles at HOCHTIEF Development in Eastern Europe and Turkey, first at Rödl & Partner and afterwards at HOCHTIEF in Germany and the Czech Republic, Peter learned to establish a company culture that adds the benefits of a smaller hands-on, owner-led firm to those of a larger corporate.
On the one hand, we’re like a startup, but on the other hand, we are handling a lot of money for institutional investors, so our people need to be very well educated and have a good background and experience in the field.
Instead of looking to expand into new countries, Zeitgeist’s current growth plan involves growing within the markets where it is already present, especially by acquiring properties in secondary cities, outside the capitals of Warsaw, Prague, Berlin and Budapest. The challenge, Peter says, is finding the right talent.
“On the one hand, we’re like a startup, but on the other hand, we are handling a lot of money for institutional investors, so our people need to be very well educated and have a good background and experience in the field. It’s not easy to find the right people in the market that you can trust,” Peter says.
The company derives its name from its niche, which involves trying to preserve the spirit of the time from an old building while updating it for the present day. “We buy these buildings and refurbish them from the inside based on modern living needs, while still keeping the historical spirit of the building,” Peter says.
Zeitgeist maintains a close and transparent relationship with clients to ensure a high level of trust. To this end, the company has established its own information technology company to create an online platform where investors can see where their money is going, compare spending on projects to the agreed-upon budgets and even see which contracts have been signed.
“One big issue when working with institutional investors is they always want to have a sense of control and be up to date,” Peter says. Another online innovation is called Home by Zeitgeist (HbZ), a new brand and business model for long-term rental of apartments.
HbZ services clients through a modern online platform that offers services like a 24/7 hotline for tenants experiencing problems, and there are even plans to allow tenants to sign leases on the platform.
“This is something that we want to establish in Eastern Europe. In Germany, this is quite normal, and in Austria and the UK too,” Peter says. The site also offers 3D tours of apartments to prospective tenants.
Zeitgeist has also built its own online booking system for student accommodation – one of the areas where it is also invested. When they were first getting ready to lease student accommodation, they learned that the available booking tools were modelled around the hotel business and were well overdue for optimisation.
After putting its own programmers to work, Zeitgeist now has a tool that adds value, ensuring that units do not lie empty. “It works very nicely,” Peter says.
No cutting corners
One benefit of working with institutional money is being able to take a longer view. “Institutional money is more long-term. It’s something that you can really grow on a strategic level,” Peter says.
“You can really be working professionals in that field, so it’s a different type of corporation.” This is why Zeitgeist’s investments are typically buy-to-lease, rather than ones that aim to achieve a fast profit by flipping properties.
The same ethos that informs Zeitgeist’s long-term outlook also means the firm is not interested in saving money during the construction process.
“When young people start at our company, I always try to explain to them that you make no money by cutting costs during construction. You make a lot of money with a good financing structure,” Peter says.
“The average person doesn’t understand that. They think, ‘OK, the construction cost is the main point.’ And, maybe you can save here or there, but in the end, there are certain ways you can bring a real estate project into profitability, and that’s not the main one,” he adds.
There was one case, however, where Zeitgeist received an unexpected offer on a property in Berlin that it had only recently acquired. The buyer paid more than Zeitgeist had, so the company made a quick, unexpected profit. “We don’t want to flip things very fast,” Peters says. “But, yeah, sometimes these things happen.”
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