The German family playing a real-life game of Monopoly

The secretive Conles already own some of London’s most distinctive commercial properties and are buying again – but who exactly are they? Joanna Bourke investigates

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The Independent Online

London boasts some architecturally fascinating buildings. Take Shell Mex House on The Strand. The 1930s Art Deco block overlooking the River Thames is instantly recognisable for its giant exterior clock – the biggest in the capital. 

The 6,000 square metres of Kensington’s Roof Gardens are famed for their flock of flamingos, a flowing stream and grottoes. Across the road from the Gardens, sits the majestic Barkers building, once a thriving department store and now home to upmarket retailers such as Whole Foods and a stable of national newspapers, including The Independent and its sister title, i.

Then there is Liberty, another famous department store building, whose frontage – with black beams in the Tudor Revival style – is a landmark just off Regent Street.

But what do all these prime properties have in common? The answer is that they are all linked to a secretive German dynasty, the Conle family. Over more than two decades the family has been using investment vehicles to purchase these trophy buildings, accumulating a £2bn real estate empire in London. The Conle holdings are a gold mine, according to Gregor Wallace, a senior director at the property agency BNP Paribas Real Estate. “This is a world-class property portfolio which is effectively the best parts and squares of the Monopoly board,” he said. 

The Kensington Roof Gardens are famed for their flock of flamingos, a flowing stream and grottoes (Getty)

This month, the Conle name has resurfaced. The family is behind the recent £23m purchase of a long lease on an office block at 81 Piccadilly, close to The Ritz hotel. The block borders Stratton House, which the family acquired three years ago and is the London headquarters of Manchester United Football Club. The Plaza shopping centre on Oxford Street, another outpost of their empire, has also just agreed a lease to the high-street chain Next.

But who are the Conles? London is no stranger to family firms buying up swathes of prime commercial property. The Candy brothers have teamed up on numerous projects, as have the well-known Reuben brothers who own several chunks of the West End. But the Conles have an exceptionally low profile.

It was in 2012 and 2013 that the surname first made waves in the property world, when the Conles were linked with the purchase of three London buildings for about £1bn: Stratton House, Shell Mex House and The Roof Gardens, Kensington. The estate agency Strutt & Parker estimates that the family’s money accounted for 9 per cent of the £9.2bn of commercial property transactions in the West End and its fringes in 2013.

The part of the family involved in the London property empire is led by Henning Conle, a UK resident originally from Duisburg in Germany. He has been responsible for setting up the corporate vehicles to buy UK real estate since the early 1990s. The 72-year-old is the son of Heinrich Conle, who set up an architectural and construction business with his brother, Kurt, in Speldorf in 1948 which became known as Gebrüder Conle. The company quickly established itself in the era of post-war reconstruction. 

Small private housing projects were followed by larger government contracts to build schools and social housing schemes. It is believed that some of this fortune was used to amass the British real estate portfolio, and that Henning’s son and daughter help out in some capacity.

The Shell-Mex building on Charing Cross Road, another building in the Conle portfolio (Getty)

The Conles were last in the news in January 2015 when Savills made a High Court claim for £7m in unpaid commission relating to the Shell Mex acquisition. The case is understood to have been resolved. But Henning apparently now takes a back seat and an agent, Dr Thomas Nigg, is in charge of running the day-to-day business, together with the management companies involved in each property. These include CBRE and Cushman & Wakefield.

Dr Nigg is a trustee of the Conle family trust and a practising lawyer admitted to the Liechtenstein bar. In a rare interview with The Independent, he shed some light on the property empire and played down the idea that the family suddenly embarked on an impulsive shopping spree three years ago. He said: “It looks like we went crazy buying properties, but actually some of the deals were a long time in the making and just happened.”

Noting that it was an attractive time to invest in London real estate, Dr Nigg added: “Current currency [rates] make it a favourable time to be buying UK buildings, in particular for investors who are thinking in US dollars.” 

However, it could also be an attractive time for the family to sell, according to William Forster, a director at Valore Real Estate. He said there would be no shortage of buyers prepared to offer big sums for any of the striking buildings in the Conle portfolio. “We are seeing demand from family offices, institutions and private equity investors all seeking to invest money into what is considered a safe haven from more volatile market places,” he added.

But the recent flow of deals suggests that the Conles are not in the market to sell, so should we expect more acquisitions soon? “I would not say that we would never make any more acquisitions, but for now we are already doing a lot,” said Dr Nigg. With property values soaring in London and no shortages of companies needing extra office or retail space, the Conle family is playing a winning game on the real-life Monopoly board. 

The old Barkers building is now home to a stable of national newspapers, including The Independent and its sister title, i (Getty)

Deep pockets: The Conle family estate

1993 Family spends about £100m on the former Barkers department store building in Kensington, now home to The Independent, i and other newspapers.  

2004 The Conles buy the Plaza shopping centre, Oxford Street, for £116m.

2010 They spend £41.5m on the Liberty department store building in Great Marlborough Street.

2012 The Conles pay £166m for Stratton House, an office block in Mayfair. 

2013 The family snaps up The Roof Gardens venue in Kensington for £225m.

2013 They pay £610m for Shell Mex House, a Grade II-listed art deco office block overlooking the Thames.

2016 Conles purchase a long lease on office building at 81 Piccadilly for about £23m.