PARIS — Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield on Thursday dismissed demands from a consortium of shareholders that includes French billionaire Xavier Niel to abandon plans for a 3.5 billion-euro rights issue and instead shed its U.S. malls.
The supervisory board, which met Thursday, “expresses its strong disagreement with these proposals, which add significant uncertainty and risk in the current complex environment,” said URW in a statement.
Niel, a well-known telecoms entrepreneur in France, has teamed with Léon Bressler, a past chief executive officer of Unibail, and together they hold 4.1 percent of the company’s shares.
The shareholders said the planned rights issue would be “severely dilutive,” calling it a “misguided act by management who remains a prisoner of a failed strategy that began with the acquisition of Westfield.”
The shareholders would like the company to refocus on its core European shopping centers and sell its U.S. holdings.
“Unshackling URW from its U.S. portfolio will generate a superior performance over the long term, to the benefit of all stakeholders,” they said.
URW’s supervisory board shot back, saying it unanimously supports the real estate company’s strategic plan, dubbed “reset,” which in addition to the capital raised entails selling 4 billion euros’ worth of real estate in Europe — half retail and half office real estate — by the end of next year. It cited the recent 620 million euro sale of an office building that houses Nestlé headquarters in a Paris suburb as proof it is moving forward with its plans.
“The reset plan is about immediate action to ensure the operational and financial flexibility of the group,” said the real estate company.
URW was formed when the French real estate company purchased Westfield for nearly $25 billion in 2018. At the time, mergers were seen as a key form of defense for mall operators struggling to cope with declining foot traffic as consumers shifted to digital means for shopping. The ailing sector has been dealt a further blow by the coronavirus pandemic, which has spooked shoppers from physical stores and accelerated online purchases.
Since purchasing Westfield, and its properties in London, New York and San Francisco, chairman and ceo Christophe 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, bringing scale to the local mall business.
The company reported 1.06 billion euros in rental income in the first half of the year, a 15.1 percent decline.
URW is holding its annual shareholder meeting on Nov. 10.