Link CEO Luke Petherbridge and Global Co-Head of Blackstone Real Estate Ken Caplan discuss the evolution of the logistics industry and where they see opportunity in the market today.
As e-commerce demand has boomed in recent years, logistics properties – retailers’ warehouses, distribution facilities and fulfillment centers – increasingly play a vital role in helping goods reach consumers. Blackstone formed Link in 2019 after identifying a gap in the logistics industry: the need for last-mile facilities, which help enable rapid delivery to major urban centers, at a nationwide scale.
When building the leadership team for the company, Blackstone turned to a trusted partner: Luke Petherbridge, who has run several Blackstone portfolio companies over the course of his career. As CEO of Link, Luke was tasked with working alongside Blackstone’s Real Estate team to build a leading national provider of logistics real estate solutions designed to meet the needs of the modern supply chain. Today, he leads a fast-growing team of over 400 people located in all major markets across the country.
Logistics has long been one of Blackstone’s highest-conviction investment themes. Since 2010, Blackstone has been building leading logistics real estate companies across three continents, becoming one of the largest owners of logistics properties in the world. With the launch of Link, Blackstone saw an opportunity to leverage the scale of a thriving business and provide a differentiated service to e-commerce retailers and other customers across the country.
We sat down with Luke and Ken Caplan, Global Co-Head of Blackstone Real Estate, to discuss how Link is positioning itself for long-term growth.
Ken, when did Blackstone first begin investing in the logistics industry? How has its involvement in the space grown since then?
Ken Caplan: We first saw the opportunity in the logistics space – or the industrial space, as we called it at the time – in the late 2000s. When we looked at the sector, we saw improving fundamentals and very attractive values. We began our journey in the space by acquiring two portfolios back in 2010.
We saw early on that e-commerce growth was creating a tailwind, and our conviction in the sector built on itself from there. It has since become a global theme and one of our highest-conviction investment areas. In 2010, logistics comprised just 2% of our global portfolio. By the end of 2020, we had acquired over 1.2 billion square feet of logistics and the sector represented 38% of our global portfolio, our largest sector exposure.
One of our strengths at Blackstone is that we operate as one globally connected business and we have a constant view into what’s happening in the markets and our portfolio. This creates a powerful feedback loop that informs and strengthens our investment convictions. Our scale also helps us to build market leading businesses and attract top talent, which makes a big difference. Link and Luke are perfect examples of that.
How has the logistics industry changed in recent years?
KC: The strength and growth of logistics has been tied to the strong and steady growth in e-commerce, which accelerated substantially this past year. Online sales have gone from seven percent of retail sales five years ago to 16 percent today.1 E-commerce sales rose 60% in the fourth quarter of 2020 alone.2 Investors are increasingly recognizing the attractiveness of logistics, although I believe the market still doesn’t fully the appreciate the extent to which the changes currently underway are benefiting the sector.
Luke Petherbridge: We’re seeing a sustained shift in consumer shopping behaviors towards e-commerce, and the speed at which that shift is happening accelerated significantly in 2020. People looking for convenience want to buy things online, and they want them delivered as quickly as possible. We believe this trend will only continue to grow. As we look to the future of this space, logistics properties – especially those in “last-mile” locations near major urban centers like Link’s properties – will matter more for supply chain management for e-commerce retailers and suppliers than they ever have before.
Luke, can you speak to the vision you’ve mapped out for Link’s growth in the years ahead?
LP: Link is aiming to be more than just a landlord – we want to be a great partner to our customers and offer them a unique service that can actually lower their costs, increase their efficiency and ultimately drive productivity gains for them.
We try to do that by marrying our national scale with a local, customer-first approach from our dedicated teammates all around the country. We manage over 400 million square feet of logistics real estate, which gives us great access to operational efficiencies, technology, and trend data.
Having Blackstone’s backing also allows us to invest our time and capital to pursue enhancements that can help differentiate us from our competitors. Ultimately, that helps us move the logistics real estate industry forward more broadly.
How does Link offer a differentiated service to its customers?
LP: It all starts with our team and their customer-first mindset in everything we do – whether that is the real estate we own, the services we offer or the technology we implement. Integrating technology into our properties is a key priority for us,from sustainability initiatives like LED lights or solar panels on the roof to finding more efficient ways to manage utilities and lower customers’ operating costs.
Access to operational and trend data is another advantage. Our scale allows us to identify trends from across our portfolio, which helps make us smarter investors and developers.
Our team’s customer-first approach, combined with utilizing trend data and investing more in technology, can drive efficiencies and control costs for our tenants long-term. I think this is what is really going to differentiate Link as we look forward.
How does Link think about ESG both within its portfolio and beyond?
LP: ESG is part of our DNA at Link, and we have a dedicated team focused on improving our assets and enterprise. We believe that making our supply chain as efficient as possible in terms of energy use is a requirement for good business. In addition, we want to be a landlord of choice with a real record for helping our tenants reduce their carbon footprint and ultimately their operating costs. We recently announced an exciting step forward in our ESG efforts: a goal of powering 100% of our operations with renewable energy by 2024 and achieving carbon-neutral operations by 2025.
On the social side, we’re focused in large part on how we can support our employees and our customers by expanding our diversity, equity, and inclusion programming – our internal Women’s Initiative, for example, fosters empowerment and professional development of our female employees. Link is also a partner in CoreGiving, a nonprofit committed to addressing child hunger.
As owners of real estate in major markets across the US, our team is thrilled to be able to support our local communities in this extremely important way. I think we really see our ESG efforts as an opportunity to create long term value for employees, customers, investors, and our local communities.
KC: I’d add that it has been incredibly important across the firm and our real estate business. We’ve had a Chief Sustainability Officer at Blackstone for a decade, and we recently brought on board a Global Head of Real Estate ESG as well.
In our view, it’s not a trade-off between returns and performance; it’s part of being better investors. And it’s not something that we need to push on to our portfolio companies, because they’re already leading these efforts themselves.
Where do you see this industry headed in the coming years? How is Link positioned to be at the forefront of its growth?
LP: Logistics real estate is almost like infrastructure. While supply used to run through a store, now it sometimes skips the store and goes directly to your doorstep. As demand for quick delivery accelerates, we believe these facilities will become an increasingly important part of the e-commerce supply chain.
On top of that, it’s having other offerings like procurement discounts, sustainability, utility management, customer service. It’s the ability to use data to make sure our facilities are efficient for our customers and located where they will drive the greatest value. We want to be at the forefront of where we think the supply chain is going, and where we see the greatest opportunity is owning the last mile at scale.
KC: Luke said it well. We could not be more excited about Link’s future with Luke at the helm.
1. As of YE 2019; Source: eMarketer
2. Bank of America Securities as of January 7, 2021