COPT expands plan to sell off some assets

January 1, 2012

Columbia-based Corporate Office Properties Trust is selling off office buildings worth millions in an effort to position itself better as its core customers face tougher times.

COPT, a specialty real-estate investment trust, has focused on providing office space specifically designed for Defense Department bodies and defense contractors, often buying up space near bases. But analysts say the company has been hurt by cuts to government spending and the resulting hit to contractors.

The company “was exceptionally good at taking advantage of the growth of the federal government’s overall budget,” said John W. Guinee, managing director at Stifel Nicolaus. “That worked very, very well from Sept. 11 ,2001, until about a year ago, maybe even two years ago.”

Last month, COPT announced it is significantly expanding its strategic reallocation plan — or its strategy to sell certain properties more quickly — from $260 million in assets to $572 million. The company also said it was revising its earnings per share for the quarter ending Dec. 31 to reflect losses.

When COPT announced its strategic reallocation plan in April, the company said the strategy would allow it to reduce its “exposure to traditional suburban office buildings” and increase its percentage of buildings serving its “super core customers,” or government agencies and defense contractors.


One of the three properties Corporate Office Properties Trust has sold in the Rutherford Business Center in Woodlawn in an effort to reduce its holdings. (Courtesy of CoStar Group)

“Frankly, from 2008 until recently it was a poor market for selling assets. We’re using the current environment to catch up on some rational pruning,” said Roger A. Waesche Jr., COPT’s president, in an April call with investors.

Waesche is in the process of taking over from Rand Griffin, COPT’s chief executive since 2005, who announced in September that he would retire at the end of March.

Guinee said the company now is trying to reposition by selling off assets it bought at the height of the market — in 2006 and 2007 — but have become less desirable.

“The thing to do is to take [their] medicine and to sell all the assets that [they] think don’t have any long-term growth potential,” Guinee said. “I don’t really think they have any other choice.”

Last quarter, the company said it sold 15 properties of about 641,000 square feet and 13.7 acres of land, ringing up $52.2 million. Those sold include a property in the Hunt Valley area for $3.45 million; 13 properties and a small piece of land in the Rutherford Business Center in Woodlawn for $32.5 million; and White Marsh Commerce Center, made up of a 218,000-square-foot warehouse and 13.4 acres, for $16.25 million.

Since announcing the plan in April, COPT said it has sold $76.7 million in properties.

In a report issued Dec. 6, BMO Capital Markets backed rapidly disposing of unwanted assets.

Waesche “could look to quickly put his signature on the business by using the current point in time, when the stock is out of favor, to accelerate dispositions — a faster move to focus on its ‘super-core’ defense/IT niche,” the analyst report said.

Guinee said the company’s sales now will position it better for the future.

“They’ll clearly be a stronger company a year from now,” he said.

COPT, which declined to elaborate on its plans, has scheduled a Jan. 12 call with investors to provide guidance on 2012.

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