Historic Homes, trendy business

It is not every company that can boast of having paid out dividends annually since its inception – and of managing that with a business plan that is aimed at the restoration of old buildings.

It naturally does no harm that many of the (original) investors have “never” cashed their dividend cheques. “Use the money for the purpose for which the company was established”, is the underlying message, according to Mr Pieter Kotzé, recently appointed as chief executive officer.

And this purpose is to buy, restore and rent out buildings that are worthy of restoration.

Less than a year after Dr Anton Rupert first suggested the creation of such a company, Historic Homes of South Africa Pty was registered as a public company on 31 March 1966. Rupert himself was the first chairperson of the board, with people like Dr W.E.G. Louw, Prof. F. Smuts and Mr I.M. Hoogenhout serving alongside him.

Among the original (and present) investors are South African giants like Anglo American, Woolworths, Standard Bank, Sappi, SAB and Naspers.

The secret of the success of HH seems to be in the rental of their property. Kotzé, like Rupert, believes that a building must have a use. All their properties are therefore leased on commercial basis at market-related prices. According to Kotzé there is a waiting list of people who are interested in renting these properties, which means that HH may be selective in choosing their tenants. Many tenants then also stay for years.

The current chairperson of the board, Mr Pieter van der Poel, mentions four goals around which HH was created, namely:

– The purchase, restoration and leasing of threatened historic buildings;
– Acting as a facilitator to mediate the conservation of endangered property;
– Training the public in aspects of culture and conservation;
– Acting as facilitator in keeping a record of the conservation laws of South Africa.

While the latter has largely been completed, the other three goals continue to form the foundation on which they build, says Van der Poel.

At present, HH only possesses property in the Western and the Eastern Cape.

He also says that he would be in favour of the purchase of buildings that are old and already national monuments, but not just of Cape Dutch style, Victorian etc. HH furthermore looks at homes that currently may not be old, but of historical and conservation value.

Van der Poel is more cautious: “It will have to be an exceptionally special place.”

Buying old property is often accompanied by difficulty, says Kotzé, because people frequently inflate their prices as soon as they know that HH is interested. According to Kotzé, the company cannot but pay market-related prices and thorough research is conducted to ensure that money is spent judiciously. It also happens that developers often offer more that the market value because they recognise potential in the location (for instance). They often develop their additional space adjacent to the building to commercially make more sense of it, sometimes at the expense of historical value. Fortunately, there are organizations like Heritage Western Cape who hold a strict eye on such activities.

“It is not that we oppose development”, warns Van der Poel, “but it may not happen at the cost of conservation.”