As a British soldier in the Cold War, Andrew Coombs was posted to Berlin, which is still shattered by a wall of concrete and barbed wire.
Three decades later, things are different – and the heads of Sirius Real Estate have a good look.
With his office disregarding the Reichstag, Coombs has quietly become an influential British success story abroad.
The FTSE 250 has extensive trading and industrial parks across Germany and made a profit of £ 141 million last year – more than 4 124 million in 2019.
Tenants include GKN, Amazon, Daimler, Bopp & Reuther and other blue chip giants and smaller firms.
In a trading update yesterday, Coombs reported a 12 per cent rise in key rental numbers to £ 85 million and said ‘confidence is back’ thanks to vaccine release.
Shares fell slightly from 3.2 per cent to 125.2p, but the epidemic has risen more than 150 per cent since the downturn.
This is far from the case for Coombs, 56, who has inherited it since 2010, when shares were hovering around 20p when he was brought in to stabilize Sirius in the wake of the financial crisis.
At its lowest point, the firm has plunged to an annual loss of £ 44 million as the real estate bubble rose and property values fell.
With creditors knocking on the door, Coombs had to fight back-to-back action to stay afloat.
‘The first two years were just about survival,’ he says. ‘When I arrived, we only had enough cash to stay for three weeks.’
The bank of the company is circulating, eager to repay the m 100 million loan – even if it intends to close the company – because investors do not want to pay more.
Soldier: Coombs in his military days. In 1982, at the age of just 17, he was assigned to Berlin
‘I can personally recall the horrible days when I fired 29 people,’ says Coombs. So how did the company survive?
‘We’ve stopped spending, letting the staff go and some customers have managed to pre-pay the rent to make us liquid.’
He remembers dining with a client at a London restaurant when two senior bankers ambushed and said, “You’re done.”
‘It’s absolutely horrible. But my answer was, ‘We’re turning business around. I am repaying these debts. If you use these techniques, the business will be ruined and you will get nothing. ‘
And we paid back one cent each – which is one reason we get money at low interest rates today. People know we will return it. ‘
By 2012, Sirius was restructured to bring its assets under management, further savings were made.
But the company was still discounting its assets by 70 percent, and Coombs eventually decided he wanted to raise money.
So he chose dual-listing on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange because, by his own admission – ‘South Africa is the only place we can raise money’.
The firm raised € 40 million and used the money to invest in new assets, reviving its debut at the FTSE 250 three years ago.
This is justified for Coombs, who took an unusual route to the boardroom through military and consultancy work.
After leaving school and joining the regional army, he was assigned to Berlin in 1982 at the age of just 17.
He remembers watching the Russian soldiers crossing the border with East-West Germany and stepping behind an unknown soldier’s monument.
‘It was like being in the west but when you crossed the border, the cars, clothes and everything was black and white,’ he says.
‘It was hard to grasp. It was an adventure at that age – drinking German beer, meeting German girls, it was a great experience. You will later realize its significance. ‘
A year later he joined the Grenadier Guards, part of the regular army, and served in Central America and Northern Ireland and became a qualified sniper. Coombs returned to TA in 1987 and left in 1992 as a platoon sergeant.
He initially fought outside forces – ‘I have no social skills’ – but with the help of mentors he got a sales and marketing job on the Yellow Pages and rose to the rank.
He left as manager and went on-and-off to work as a consultant to companies undergoing transformation, including British Airways.
It was later worked on Regus before joining Sirius.
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