Canada’s Altus Wants to Save Landlords Millions on Property Tax

  • CEO plans to double revenue with acqusitions in U.S., U.K.
  • Shares in real estate data provider outpacing bigger peers

Altus is now the No. 2 provider of real estate tax advisory services in the U.K.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Altus Group Ltd. plans to double its revenue to about C$800 million ($608 million) in the next five years as the Canadian real estate data provider expands further into property-tax consulting with acquisitions in the U.S. and U.K.

Altus could spend as much as $100 million on a single purchase as it adds taxes to services such as portfolio valuation and cost tracking for clients from Brookfield Asset Management Inc. to Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. Chief Executive Officer Bob Courteau has already approached the five biggest companies in the U.S., including the property tax unit of Texas-based Ryan LLC, the largest in North America. Although so far rebuffed, he’s optimistic.

“We want to do more tax acquisitions,” Courteau, 61, said in an interview at Bloomberg’s Toronto office. “It’s ripe for consolidation, it’s ripe for modernization, and we’re going to be the company that does that."

Altus is transitioning from its traditional real estate advisory roots into a technology player that compiles, analyzes and sells property data. The company has done about 50 acquisitions in the past decade and Courteau said the commercial property market is only starting to become digitized. Courteau’s goal: become the largest supplier of real estate information in the world.

Shareholders are giving him a vote of confidence. Altus stock is trading just under a record high of C$31.45, after having risen 64 percent in the last 12 months to a market value of C$1.12 billion. That gain outpaces peers such as Washington D.C.-based CoStar Group Inc., which is up 12 percent in the same period, and Irvine, California-based CoreLogic Inc., which has risen 9.8 percent.

Market Share

As rising prices for commercial real estate in North America leave razor-thin profit margins, landlords are seeking savings and one target is property taxes. Tax advisory is the company’s fastest-growing business, contributing about a third of revenue. Revenue in the unit jumped 24 percent in the third quarter from the prior year, compared with 12 percent in analytics and a 29 percent decline in geomatics, a land surveying business that’s been sideswiped by the energy downturn.

“If I was just starting all over and said ‘I just want to run one company, one product line, I’d probably take property tax because it’s got the most upside," Courteau said. “Even though Altus analytics has an amazing path in front of it." The company can save a building owner millions, Courteau said, by providing services including assessing value, managing the filing process, and appealing levies.

Altus commands a 60 percent market share in Canada for real estate tax advisory, and has jumped to No. 3 in the U.S. from sixth largest in 2012 when Courteau was named CEO, he said. It’s now the No. 2 provider of the tax services in the U.K., he said.

‘Collision Course’

It may not be easy for Altus to acquire tax consultancies in the U.S.

“We are not for sale," Brint Ryan, CEO and co-founder of closely held Ryan, said by phone from an office in Scottsdale, Arizona. “We are net acquirers. We are growing a portfolio of tax practices and have no interest in selling.”

Altus approached the company about buying its property tax business in October and Ryan told the Canadian firm "we think it makes more sense to buy yours,” he said. “It sounds like we are on a collision course with Altus.”

Michael Urlocker, an analyst at GMP Securities who rates Altus one of his top technology picks, said the commercial real estate industry is increasingly using technology to value assets and to make better investment decisions. “We see these trends as lasting many years, leading to sustained organic growth and premium valuations," he said in a Jan. 11 note to clients.

Venture capital spending on real estate technology reached a record $1.7 billion globally in 2015, eight times the $200 million in 2012, according to research firm CB Insights.

Global Company

Altus itself was one of the first backers of startup Real Matters Inc., the Canadian cloud-based provider of property information, with a 14 percent stake. Courteau, who invested in LinkedIn Corp. and Box Inc. in his former role at software firm SAP SE, is considering investments in other real estate data startups around the world that do everything from benchmarking to tracking construction and energy.
“I have lots of decisions to make to become a technology company," Courteau said. “The real question is: are we going to have a powerhouse global company with a unique value proposition that’s about portfolio management, expense tracking, and cost-to-build scenarios that is the envy of every company in the world? Yes, we will. We do now."

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