MAGAZINE: 5 Rising Stars of European Real Estate

Who are European property's up-and-coming leaders? For the second year in a row, we asked industry practitioners for their nominations and selected five Rising Stars.

This year’s cohort of talented leaders, innovators and communicators reflects the growing importance of ESG, diversity, residential, and proptech.

Thomas Balashev

Thomas Balashev turns 32 this month. He is the founder of Monta Capital, a London-based private equity real estate firm currently raising a maiden UK distressed residential real estate fund.

Born of a Bulgarian father and a Scottish mother, Balashev is an entrepreneur who has worked hard for everything he has achieved. And, if he makes it really big, one day a film could be made about his life, especially his early exploits.

Shunning university, he tried various ventures in his teens and twenties.

He chuckles recalling one that was a ‘Live Life in the Sun’ product comprising an invention like a ‘Ghostbusters pack’ that sprayed quick-dry sun cream over people on holiday, which lost him thousands of pounds.

Another enterprise was Macaron de Londres, a venture making macarons of various flavours, each of which was named after a famous part of London.

‘We actually found a lady who gave us a cheap point of entry because she was a patisserie chef who was training people that had just left prison with some culinary skills. We would sell the macarons at various pop-ups and markets. It was a hell of a lot of work for literally no margin!’

But his break in real estate fund management came later as Balashev began moving away from buying homes for overseas people to raising capital for £2-4 mln residential development projects.

The story he tells is amusing but also shows his energy and contact-making skills.

One day, he was contacted by someone from Chicago who said they had been living in China for the past few years and could score Balashev and his business partner VIP tickets to an immigration and investment convention in Beijing.

Dubious, they checked his credentials, but having satisfied themselves the offer was legitimate leapt at the chance to make some contacts in China. Just a few days later they boarded a plane armed with tickets and fast-track visas.

Having sunk too many in-flight drinks, Balashev relates how he and his business partner arrived in China with hangovers but proceeded to fight through smog to reach the venue.
They took two of the few remaining seats in the entire auditorium at what turned out to be a top table with VIPs such as a representative of the Chinese government and a well-known Canadian entrepreneur.

Later that night and back at the hotel, it was ladies’ night. The hired band was from the Dominican Republic, the same country as the girlfriend of Balashev’s business partner. And as Balashev and his partner partied hard, who should walk in but the same crowd from the conference. From this coincidence a chain of events was set off that would eventually lead to Balashev being put in touch with a law firm and fund administrator that would answer his questions to start his own real estate fund.

He says: ‘Through these contacts I gained a crash course in institutional finance from people over dinner in Beijing. This gave me enough confidence we could deliver on what we were doing.’

He adds: ‘I am like a sponge soaking up as much information as possible and without an ego, asking the simple questions of how to get things done. Slowly, I have moved up the food chain and we are now at the stage of interviewing for many roles at Monta from fund accountants to a CFO, and I am no longer out of place.’

Laura Denenga

Laura Denenga was nominated for the PropertyEU Rising Stars feature last year, but sadly was not included for space reasons! Making up for that, here she is featured as a Rising Star as she continues to make a name for herself at Allianz Real Estate’s debt business.

Denenga, 33, says she was first introduced into the world of real estate during her economics studies at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. An alumnus and her mentor hired her as an analyst to work for his company, Quadrant Real Estate Advisors. At the time, Quadrant was AXA Equitable’s dedicated debt investment manager for real estate. She began her career in the loan asset management division until she moved to London in 2013 to help establish Quadrant’s European lending business focused on the UK and Ireland on behalf of an Australian pension fund.

Denenga’s father owned and operated a handful of supermarket and hardware store chain franchises in Harare, Zimbabwe. In his later years, he sold these businesses to start his lifelong dream of farming, which Denenga’s brother and mother have continued.

Growing up in Harare, Denenga did well not just academically but in music and sports too, recalling how she was in the school choir, played piano and was a member of the school orchestra as a violist. Not only that, she also represented the Zimbabwe National U16 and U18 teams in field hockey, and even more impressively was in Zimbabwe’s Women’s squad during the 2007 Africa Cup of Nations Olympic Qualifier.

It was through field hockey that she ultimately earned a scholarship to study at Colgate University in the US which set her on the road to commercial real estate, leaving behind an idea to become a doctor. That said, she completed the requirements to go to medical school alongside her economics degree, but then got ‘enticed by buildings and the fantastic world of real estate!’

In 2019 a cyclone hit Zimbabwe, which was an eye-opening experience. Cyclone Idai led to over a thousand deaths and $2 bn of destruction. Says Denenga: ‘It is unusual for such a devastating cyclone to affect Zimbabwe, a landlocked country, which really resonated with me and made very clear the acute impact of climate change.’

She adds: ‘The pandemic has been an important reminder that we’re living in a global ecosystem, and that we’re all connected. If any community is affected by a crisis, whether a pandemic or climate change, it will ultimately affect us all, and we need to do whatever we can in our own capacity to contribute to the improvement of the planet at large.’

Roland Fuchs, head of European real estate finance at Allianz Real Estate, says: ‘I sincerely appreciate Laura’s unique combination of profound expertise, collaborative and team-oriented mindset and entrepreneurial drive to bring a deal over the finish line.’

Her mentor, Kurt Wright, CEO of Quadrant Real Estate Advisors, adds: ‘Laura is an exceptionally trustworthy and extremely effective professional. She is smart, driven, reliable and independent; and always focused on the team’s goals.’

Shripal Shah, head of debt originations UK at Allianz Real Estate, calls her ‘a true professional who is always keen to learn but is also very good at building and maintaining a strong external and internal network. A lot of people don’t see how hard she works to maintain such high standards’.

John Zaback, SVP at Quadrant Real Estate Advisors, reveals another side to her: ‘She is extremely well connected within the market and has an uncanny ability to connect with people and make them laugh.’

Claudia Goergen of Allianz Real Estate’s debt originations team, adds: ‘Laura stands out with her profound real estate knowledge and experience which allows her to understand and meet clients’ needs for complex transactions on a constructive and consulting basis.’

Sumedha Goenka

Sumedha Goenka is a principal in Blackstone’s acquisitions team and has been with the company for close to eight years.

She started her career as an intern and has worked across a number of high-profile transactions across various jurisdictions and asset classes – from London offices to the acquisition of OfficeFirst, the €3.3 bn German office company, and HIP, the €700 mln Spanish hospitality platform. Goenka has also completed several pan-European logistics deals including MStar, a Dutch-German last-mile portfolio, and the purchase of a French-German portfolio from Castlelake.

She grew up in India where she studied mathematics and completed her Masters Degree in Finance and Management from the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore.

Goenka is now primarily focused on Blackstone’s resort and hospitality as well as its last-mile urban logistics strategies in Europe.

The high-flying professional says she enjoys working on diverse transactions and attributes her success to being detail orientated and the mentorship of her team members and the real estate professionals who she enjoys working with.


Katherine Beisler

In April this year, Katherine Beisler was elevated to head of ESG Consulting at real estate consultancy Hollis.

The American, who lives in the Netherlands, says she is delighted at the way the real estate industry has changed: ‘There is such a high demand for sustainability advice right now,’ she says. ‘When I started in the industry 10 years ago, there was little or no demand for this type of advice, but now it’s something our clients are asking for help with on a daily basis.’

As an eight-year-old growing up in Chicago, Beisler dreamed of being an architect. She recalls many a visit to her grandparents’ home in Florida, where she would beg to go with them to open houses just so she could marvel at their style and design.

In pursuit of her dream, Beisler graduated from university with an architecture degree and lived in Washington D.C. before moving to Thailand for a year. But after meeting her Dutch fiancé, she settled in the Netherlands where she has been for the past four years.

Her first job in the Netherlands was within the sustainability, strategy and innovation team at Cushman & Wakefield, advising investors on their ESG strategy. She then spent a brief time with The Student Hotel before joining Hollis in September 2019 as a consultant and being promoted to her current role this year. ‘ESG is something that I have just grown up with,’ Beisler explains. ‘It was part of my education and work experience from Day One. I really always liked houses and wanted to create those spaces for people. I never went into house design, but I think that is where my passion for architecture and sustainability came from.’

She continues: ‘I always knew I wanted to be an architect. I also knew for a very long time I wanted to do sustainability, so I started doing things like LEED certifications and incorporating sustainability into urban planning.

‘Working out how to put sustainability and real estate together has been a challenge over the last 10 years. I tried first through design, but the thing about that is I had to design what the client wanted. Luckily at Hollis, we have a client base very eager to embrace ESG and understand the added value that it brings to real estate, so we’re pleased to be making great advances in that area.’

Kingma Ma

The youngest on the list, Kingma Ma was appointed to the new position of head of UK investments at the Berlin-headquartered proptech VC, PropTech1, earlier this year, aged just 27 years old. Prior to that, he worked at proptech-focused venture capital investor, Round Hill Ventures. Ma was born in China and grew up in Yorkshire and London.

When not working for PropTech1, he reserves some hours to help the family business, Zian Hi-Tech Cashmere, as business development and sustainability manager. Ma says Zian Hi-Tech has been supplying cashmere to many of Europe’s mills for more than 25 years. Part of being a responsible supplier is ensuring that the supply chain operations are accredited as sustainable under fashion supply standards. He is also CEO and co-founder of GoCarer, which provides Pivotal Response Training for autistic children.

For PropTech1, Ma says he is passionate about growing an active network of both investors and operators in the UK start-up community. He has wasted little time, it seems, given the firm has just agreed to make its maiden UK investment, a flexible office software solution called Desana.

PropTech1 was founded by Marius Marschall von Bieberstein, Anja Rath and Nikolas Samios. Last year, former CEO of JLL Germany, Timo Tschammler, joined as a limited partner along with Beat Schwab, and the firm is currently busy closing capital for its first fund. The firm has raised around two-thirds of the fund so far towards a €50 mln target.

In his previous VC role at Round Hill Ventures, Ma led the firm’s investment into Wunderflats, a leading Germany proptech company. Prior to joining Round Hill Ventures, Ma was an early employee at Bought By Many, now the largest insurtech company in Europe which has raised over £110 mln so far in external investment, as well as Radish Media, which was acquired for $440 mln by Kakao Group in May 2021.

Ma’s former mentor, Rory Kindlon, is CIO at the multi-family office Nick Mason Group (started by the former Pink Floyd drummer). The longstanding financial and M&A advisor says: ‘In all my years coaching and observing CEOs pitch their business to me for investment, I have never been so impressed by the quality of investment case and thoroughly considered business plan put together and presented as I witnessed from Kingma.’


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