US mall owner's CEO is about to retire, sparking deal speculation

Key Points
  • Macerich CEO Art Coppola is retiring from the mall owner later this year.
  • The retail real estate industry has seen more consolidation in recent months.
  • Coppola's departure could be a sign more deal activity is looming, experts say.
Macerich Chairman and CEO Art Coppola speaks at the Milken Institute State of the State conference in Los Angeles.
Armando Arorizo | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Macerich's chairman and CEO, Art Coppola, is set to retire at the end of this year, having led the company for 25 years, and the news is fueling the idea that more deal activity could be looming in the retail real estate industry.

Already this year, international mall owner Westfield was acquired by Europe's biggest property firm, Unibail-Rodamco. Brookfield Property Partners meanwhile is moving forward with its plans to buy U.S. mall owner GGP.

The entire sector, even top-tier mall owner Simon Property Group, has been the victim of a "retail apocalypse" narrative, where large chains like Bon-Ton, Sears Holdings and J.C. Penney are trimming their store counts across the U.S. and leaving vacant boxes behind. Mall owners, in turn, have been tasked to bring in more experiential tenants, food and far less apparel.

"While we are raising our M&A probability [for Macerich], a sale / deal is far from certain and there remains a long laundry list of questions and unknowns," Mizuho Securities analyst Haendel St. Juste wrote in a note to clients. Timing, pricing and further management changes (in addition to Coppola) would be the key topics for discussion, he said.

The Santa Monica, California-based real estate investment trust faces pressure on multiple fronts.

Activist hedge fund Starboard Value built a position in Macerich and nominated directors to challenge its board, Reuters reported earlier this month. Third Point, another activist fund, disclosed a stake in Macerich last November. And Land & Buildings Investment Management, an activist hedge fund focused on real estate, also owns shares of Macerich.

"We do not know if Mr. Coppola's retirement was planned ... but in any case, Mr. Coppola not standing for re-election may have been a by-product of Starboard's reported goal to seek aggressive Board refreshment as a path to maximize shareholder value," Wells Fargo analyst Jeff Donnelly said.

BMO Capital Markets analyst Jeremy Metz added "the impending departure clears a significant roadblock here."

Many industry experts haven't forgotten when Simon offered to buy its smaller rival Macerich in 2015. Eventually the merger talks fell apart when the two couldn't decide on a purchase price.

Still, Macerich is known among its peers in the space to have higher-trafficked locations and popular, digitally native brands replacing antiquated shops.

"I am especially excited to see Macerich's centers becoming America's new town squares and downtowns and Macerich emerge as a leader in developing digitally native vertically integrated brands, the fastest growing digital commerce channel that exists today," Coppola said Thursday in a statement.

The longtime chairman and CEO added he won't stand for re-election as a director at Macerich's annual shareholders meeting. The REIT's board meanwhile has commenced a search process led by independent directors to find a new CEO.

Macerich shares have fallen 13 percent from a year ago.