Damian Mitchell, Causeway Asset Management
The picture from MIPIM 2019 of a raft of Belfast property experts standing next to the DeLorean made famous by the iconic 80’s film Back To The Future will be familiar to anyone who has spent time online preparing for a meeting with Causeway's property director, Damian Mitchell.
Mitchell is urbane and well-travelled, having pulled together deals across Europe for the best part of two decades now. Perhaps he climbed into that car, hit the magic 88 mph, and took a trip into the future?
“In a way, maybe I did,” he explains. “I have been lucky enough to do deals all across the continent and I’ve seen a vision of what Belfast’s future looks like. So for the past few years, I have worked with a very tight-knit bunch of hard-working people trying to bring all that experience and insight to bear on Belfast’s market. The people here at Causeway are very down to earth and focused: we get things done.”
…And having pulled off two of Belfast’s largest-ever real estate transactions while also navigating through a troubled 2020 in a way that others could only dream of, it’s something of an understatement.
“Over the last five years, we’ve been very active in development within Belfast, I’d say we’re probably considered one of the most active players in the city.” Causeway, famously, let Nine Lanyon Place to the Department of Finance’s property division in 2017, which at 150,000 square feet was Belfast’s largest commercial real estate deal at that time, and global cyber security business Rapid7’s new NI HQ is in based in Chichester House, one of only a handful of spec developments in Belfast during recent years.
Mitchell has also travelled in another direction which stands him and Causeway in good stead for the turbulent months ahead: in the last recession, the assets he managed were acquired by the Irish ‘bad bank”, Nama. Having steered the assets through that period, dealt with the public interest issues that arose and returned the business to purely private capital, all while re-focusing the asset base away from retail has also been its own journey; one that it is certainly hard to replicate.
“Ever since our focus turned purely to Northern Ireland, we’ve been consistently pushing the boundaries. We consider ourselves pioneers and our aim is always to keep the market momentum moving forward. Whether that’s through new ideas, trying to push rents, or bringing in new money, we’re always pushing forward, keeping up the momentum because we believe in a brighter future for the city.
“I wish I could use Doc Brown’s DeLorean to bring people back from 2035 to today,” he explains. “I’d love them to see Belfast as it is today and ask them what they were thinking 15 years previous and why they didn’t grasp the opportunities with both hands that are available right now.”
Mitchell’s energy levels zoom up: “The people. The quality of life. How pleasant it is to work here and how well educated and industry ready our people are, how if we really go for it, we can be a really attractive place for foreign direct investment from all over the world.”
And that’s when it strikes me: as much as he wants to bring people back from 2035 to show them the opportunities, he also doesn’t want to be one of those brought back in 15 years and shown the opportunities that were readily available in 2020 and weren’t exploited for the good of Belfast City.