October 15, 2009

Real estate financier John Nikolich, who relishes competing against bigger firms, could find the frozen capital market a tougher foe as he tries to raise $75 million for a new HSA Commercial Real Estate venture seeking to buy industrial properties.

Mr. Nikolich’s little-known firm, Flint Creek Partners LLC, beat out 11 other companies in July to win the fundraising assignment from Chicago-based HSA.

“His shop is more David than Goliath,” says Robert Smietana, CEO of HSA. “But (Mr. Nikolich) struck us as astute and knowledgeable about the institutional markets.”

Over the next two years, HSA wants to buy midsized industrial building in markets including Chicago, Memphis and the Southeast U.S. HSA is known for industrial development with a portfolio of 10.6 million square feet. But with property values down sharply and financing for new projects difficult to obtain, HSA – like many of its peers – is shifting its focus to investment.

That’s where Mr. Nikolich comes in. Ideally, HSA wants to partner with a single institutional investor that would pump $75 million into the venture to go with HSA’s planned contribution of $7.5 million. With leverage, HSA’s new venture could buy roughly $235 million in properties.

But observers caution that few investors these days are reaching for their checkbooks.

“Over the last year, it’s been challenging because people weren’t making any investment decisions,” says Shelby Pruett, founder of Chicago-based Equity Capital Management LLC, a real estate investment firm that’s trying to raise up to $250 million.

Mr. Nikolich, 44, says he thinks investors are coming back and notes that he’s recently fielded some calls from people looking for opportunities like the HSA venture.

“We wouldn’t have taken it on if we didn’t think we could do it,” he says of the assignment, flashing the confidence that endeared him to HSA executives.

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