Australia's Westfield Group defers shareholder vote on business split

SYDNEY Thu May 29, 2014 5:02am EDT

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SYDNEY May 29 (Reuters) - Australia's Westfield Group , the world's biggest retail property group, on Thursday deferred by two weeks a shareholder vote on whether to split its U.S. and U.K. business from its Australia and New Zealand arm.

The Sydney-based group proposes putting its international portfolio in the hands of a new company called Westfield Corp, and combining its Australasian property and property management businesses under the name Scentre.

The proposal comes as brick-and-mortar stores in Australia struggle with slow growth as consumers shift to online shopping. Westfield, led by Frank Lowy, Australia's second-richest person, hopes the restructuring will put a clearer focus on the group's mainly U.S. and U.K. international assets.

Westfield Group shareholders voted in favour of the proposal on Thursday morning, but investors in Westfield Retail Trust , a joint owner of the Australian businesses, voted against. Westfield Group, in a statement, said its chairman subsequently deferred the vote.

"The chairman, very controversially, deferred the meetings by two weeks," Stephen Mayne, a small shareholder, told Reuters by phone. Mayne is also part of the Australian Shareholders' Association.

"I think there will be a lot of anger at the sharp tactics. The against vote will rise," Mayne said.

Westfield has faced opposition to the proposal since announcing it in December by shareholders who fear their shares will be devalued. Shareholders have said the resulting Australasian arm would be less profitable without the international assets and would carry too much debt.

To garner support, Westfield Group this month said it would reduce by A$300 million ($276.56 million)to A$6.8 billion the debt the Australasian arm would carry. ($1 = 1.0848 Australian Dollars) (Reporting by Swati Pandey and Byron Kaye; Editing by Christopher Cushing)

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