Sale-leasebacks have been an important instrument in the real estate toolbox across all sectors.  For many companies selling an owned property, a sale-leaseback—where an investor purchases the property in exchange for the company leasing some or all of the property for a period of time—provides a method to realize substantial proceeds from a non-core asset that can be better directed into a company’s business operations.

In the data center and colocation site selection sector, sale leasebacks have become an integral part of many enterprise corporation strategies to get out of the “data center business” and instead focus this capital on their core strengths. The better news is that there is significant competition across the data center and colocation landscape among operators, developers and investors all seeking such sale-leaseback opportunities and paying aggressive valuations to do so. Even during this COVID pandemic, data center real estate has proven to be a stable asset class, given the long-term leases in place on a capital-intensive asset and the likelihood of future renewals. 

On the enterprise side, the benefits to a sale-leaseback go far beyond just the immediate sale proceeds

Cost savings would be one of the primary reasons for a sale-leaseback. Most corporations–even the global giants in the financial world–are finding it very difficult to stay up to date managing their IT footprint. Furthermore, they are exploring cloud initiatives and using third-party colocation providers as their company data centers are severely underutilized yet the data center floor must be running at 100% so operating costs are high. Part of these high operating costs include resources devoted to data center manpower needing to be in place to run it 24/7. Then the company also has to invest more capital annually to keep the data center running at top efficiency.

Flexibility is another important factor to the decision to sell the data center to an operator. The company can now lease only the IT critical load that it needs and can also scale up as needed, no longer dealing with the day-to-day operation. This flexibility extends to where the company needs its capacity, so it can lease IT capacity in other markets where the operator has locations.

For the data center operator or investor, a sale-leaseback provides many opportunities

The market for well-maintained data centers in Tier 1 markets is very competitive. On every colocation and cloud operator website there is generally a page or two dedicated to marketing to sale-leaseback solutions.

Where most sale-leasebacks in other real estate classes such as office space tend to require long-term master leases of fully occupied buildings, the better news is that these data center operators will pursue many creative versions and hybrids of the sale-leaseback including:

  • The “standard” sale-leaseback. This allows the company to continue to operate the facility but the investor may also provide more up-front capital to complete or expand the data center
  • The partial sale leaseback. This provides the company its upfront proceeds while the company also becomes a colocation customer in the site. The data center operator gains an anchor tenant and then has additional critical load to offer new colocation customers, while also saving significant time and capital in this new site acquisition.
  • Multi-site disposition and colocation. Some scenarios include a company vacating a facility (or facilities) while the operator takes over the data center and the company licenses capacity across the operator’s locations.

Notable sale-leasebacks

As creative solutions have evolved in sale-leasebacks, the following are some notable deals with buyer and seller goals being met:

  • Landmark Dividend purchased PayPal’s 184,000-square-foot, 16 Megawatt Phoenix data center across three buildings in a $122 million sale-leaseback. While Landmark had typically been a data center investor group only, Landmark will be operating and offering immediate data center capacity of up to 9 MWs critical load.
  • Blackstone acquired the majority interest in over 1.17 million SF of powered shell data center buildings in northern Virginia all leased by Amazon Web Services for almost $220 million.
  • DataBank’s 2019 purchase of PNC Bank’s 115,000 SF Pittsburgh data center for over $26 million wherein PNC Bank will be leasing approximately 30% of the critical load in this sale leaseback.
  • Mapletree Investments continues its massive acquisition spree across the U.S., including the $185 million purchase of three northern Virginia data centers from Digital.
  • Lincoln Rackhouse’s acquisition of the Coca Cola data center in Atlanta totaling 5 MWs of critical load. While Coca Cola only wanted to remain in a much smaller footprint as a colocation customer, Lincoln Rackhouse then master leased the entire site to INAP allowing INAP to retain Coca Cola as an anchor customer.

Conclusion

Outsourcing enterprise IT operations to third-party colocation and cloud computing operators has become the preferred solution for most corporations, these same enterprises now must determine how best to dispose of its existing facility. The good news is that it remains a seller’s market for such well-maintained facilities and can provide a significant opportunity to get top dollar, among many other incentives to seek a sale-leaseback.

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