July 24, 2018 / 7:22 AM / a month ago

Hammerson to exit retail parks as shareholder pressure builds

LONDON (Reuters) - British shopping center operator Hammerson (HMSO.L) aims to exit its out-of-town retail parks business as part an overhaul to calm shareholder unrest following its failed takeover of rival Intu Properties (INTUP.L).

FILE PHOTO: Kal Yafai & Suguru Muranaka Public Work-Outs - The Bullring, Birmingham, Britain, May 5, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Boyers/File Photo

Hammerson said on Tuesday it planned to offload 1.1 billion pounds ($1.4 billion) worth of assets by the end of 2019 and refocus its business on to its city shopping centers and premium outlets division, which includes its stakes in Bicester Village in Oxfordshire, Barcelona’s La Roca Village and Fidenza Vilage in Milan.

It will sell all of its 13 remaining out-of-town retail parks, which range from sites at Swansea to Luton, over the medium term as it seeks to counter tough trading conditions in Britain, where a number of shops and restaurant chains have either collapsed or struck deals with their landlords and other creditors to cut costs.

The disposals will tilt the owner of Birmingham’s Bullring and Bristol’s Cabot Circus shopping centers more towards Europe by lifting its exposure to non-UK retail by 10 percent.

That marks a u-turn from the proposed 3.4 billion-pound Intu purchase, which worried shareholders because it would have boosted Hammerson’s exposure to the British consumer.

Hammerson responded to those concerns by abandoning the deal for the owner of Manchester’s Trafford Centre in April.

“It’s pretty turbulent, you’re seeing a lot of pressure on retailers,” said David Atkins, Hammerson’s chief executive.

“We’ve seen quite a deterioration in the UK market in the last six months and we’re reacting to that but not shifting away from our desire to own the very best quality destinations in our markets,” he said.

Hammerson has already completed 300 million pounds of asset sales so far this year, including a 164 million-pound deal to offload retails parks at Bristol and Kirkcaldy announced on Monday.

As well as disposals, Hammerson’s overhaul includes a share buyback of as much as 300 million pounds, a target to save at least 7 million pounds in costs a year, and the decision to postpone a plan to extend London’s Brent Cross shopping center.

Shares in Hammerson were up 1.3 percent at 532.8 pence in late morning trade in London.

“The measures all appear largely sensible,” analysts at Liberum said.

“But they also highlight that Hammerson is effectively walking a tight-rope in respect of focusing its portfolio on assets where they believe there is a long-term future and appeasing those want faster value realization, without unduly saturating the market with disposals at a difficult point.”

Shareholder pressure has been mounting on Hammerson ever since it first announced the Intu deal last December and spurned a 5 billion-pound takeover bid from French rival Klepierre (LOIM.PA) in April.

Elliott, a U.S. activist hedge fund that has built up a 5.3 percent stake in Hammerson in recent months, is among investors keen to see the shopping center owner pursue a new strategy to boost value in the wake of the two aborted deals.

Hammerson announced its new strategy alongside its half-year results, which showed an 80.7 percent drop in pre-tax profits to 55.8 million pounds, knocked by property valuation changes.

However, adjusted profits for the period edged up 0.5 percent to 120 million pounds. Net rental income fell 3 percent to 178.5 million pounds during the first six months of 2018 compared with a year earlier.

Hammerson also said it was streamlining its leadership structure with the departure from its board of Peter Cole and Jean-Philippe Mouton, which will bring the number of executive directors down to two from four.

Reporting by Ben Martin; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Louise Heavens

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