In 1967, Robert Johnson was a fresh-faced graduate with a mass communications degree from the University of Minnesota who was ready to conquer the world as a newspaperman.
But then came his first job offer — and the pay was $87.50 a week.
Rather than earn a scribe’s hardscrabble wages, the Willmar native turned to an obscure corner in finance and became a bit of a trailblazer in the process. In 1970, he founded AEI Capital Corp., which creates, sells and manages funds that invest in commercial properties. Since then, AEI has raised approximately $600 million, current equity under management is roughly $435 million, the current value of the portfolio is about $510 million — with distributions to investors totaling $500 million.
Johnson focuses on conservative, all-cash investments in top-grade properties — he’s not exactly the Wolf of Wall Street.
Johnson’s St. Paul-based firm buys commercial properties — usually creditworthy big-box retailers with long-term leases and a lucrative rent stream on stand-alone sites. In these “net lease” deals, the space is leased back to the tenant, who pays most or all of the expenses, such as taxes, utilities, maintenance and insurance.
In short, if a pipe bursts during a polar vortex, it’s not Johnson’s problem.
Typical tenants include investment-grade retailers such as PetSmart, Tractor Supply Co., Dick’s Sporting Goods, Jared the Galleria of Jewelry and Staples. Because AEI enjoys long-standing relationships with many of them (and their developers), it follows them as they expand nationally. And because rental payments typically are a companywide obligation, if one store nose-dives, it’s not a catastrophe. The rent will still be paid.
One type of tenant the firm avoids is restaurants. “We’ve moved away from them,” Johnson said. “The industry has matured-out, there was a lot of financing in the 1970s to the 1990s, a lot of Applebee’s.”
Generally, AEI sells the properties within five to seven years of the fund offering. “Whenever you buy a property, you should have an exit strategy,” Johnson explains.
In September 2013, the offering of AEI Fund VII — actually the firm’s 34th fund — closed with investor subscriptions with more than $115 million, the largest in the company’s history.
Over the years, AEI has acquired about 352 properties in 37 states, but Minnesota hasn’t figured prominently in the firm’s acquisitions.
It’s not a deliberate snub of his home state, Johnson says, it’s just that “most of the investment activity seems to come from the East, Southeast and West Coast.” The company refrains from investing in California — “way too pricey,” he notes.
However, last year the firm purchased a two-story building on France Avenue in Edina that has a Vitamin Shoppe and TD Ameritrade office, for $6.9 million (in cash, of course).
Since AEI owns its properties debt free, the firm is not exposed to the risks of foreclosure or fluctuating interest rates, even during an economic maelstrom like the Great Recession. “As the economy has gone up and down and sideways, our performance has been very stable in comparison,” Johnson said.
“In good times and bad, it seems like we grow 10 percent a year whether we try to or not,” he added.
AEI also avoids other types of real estate, such as apartment buildings or strip malls, which are typically occupied by lower-credit tenants on short-term leases that can expose property owners to costly vacancies and unforeseen expenses.
AEI’s public and private real estate funds are offered through securities brokerages, usually to investors looking for a conservative play, or for an uber-safe investment to round out their portfolio. Net-leased properties are especially suitable for tax-advantaged 1031 exchanges under the Internal Revenue Code, which allows some property owners to exchange their property for “like-kind” property and defer the payment of taxes.