PARIS — Unibail Rodamco Westfield chief executive officer Christophe Cuvillier will exit the company in January, the mall operator said late Wednesday following a board meeting, as a consortium of investors led by French billionaire Xavier Niel shakes up the highest ranks of the company. The move will throw the spotlight on the group’s U.S. assets, which shareholder activists have said they would like the company to offload.
Cuvillier will be succeeded by longtime company veteran Jean-Marie Tritant, who becomes chief operating officer in the interim period, starting Thursday.
“I know that I can count on the group’s teams, their talent and their energy,” said Tritant, noting the “tireless work” of Cuvillier, who has run the company since 2013.
Tritant, who has worked for two decades at the group, played a key role in the company’s integration of U.S. assets, merging operating procedures and beefing up digital systems, including a setting up a global system to manage client data.
“During this transition phase, I will work as always to protect the group and help it go through this major crisis,” said Cuvillier.
In other changes, Dominic Lowe will become chief operating officer of the U.S.
Further management board changes will be announced at a later date, the company added.
The move comes after the shareholder consortium, which includes Léon Bressler, a former Unibail ceo, gained board seats and threw out company plans for a 3.5-billion-euro capital increase. Days later, a number of board members resigned and the chairman stepped down.
“A transition phase is beginning for URW,” said Bressler.
URW’s strategy for navigating the crisis, dubbed “Reset,” had come under fire from the activist investors. They shareholders said a rights issue would be severely dilutive, called on the company to instead focus on its core European shopping centers and sell its U.S. holdings.
The mall operator has been hit hard by lockdowns and disruption to business from the coronavirus crisis. Rental income from shopping centers declined 12.3 percent on a like-for-like basis to 1.46 billion euros in the first nine months of the year, weighed down by lagging business in the U.S.
URW was formed when the French real estate company purchased Westfield for nearly $25 billion in 2018. Mergers were seen as a defense for mall operators struggling to cope with declining foot traffic as consumers shifted to digital means for shopping. But the ailing sector has been dealt a further blow by the coronavirus pandemic.
Since purchasing Westfield, and its properties in London, New York and San Francisco, Cuvillier has steered the company’s focus on choice locations, keeping them alive with new brands and a frequent renewal of tenants. He also has promoted mixed-use sites and consumer data — collecting it globally, in a bid to bring scale to the local mall business. The executive had planned to sell 4 billion euros’ worth of real estate in Europe — half retail and half office real estate — by the end of next year.