Hammerson shifts its space odyssey changes

The one-time global landlord has cut the sprawl to refocus on Europe - and the retail sector
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RON SPINNEY, joint founder of the Greycoat property group, has transformed Hammerson in the two years since he became chief executive.

Under the late Sidney Mason, it was a sprawling global landlord, concentrating on the US, Canada, Australia and the UK. The theory was that, by spreading its assets so widely, it would avoid the worst of the property cycle in any one country. But it found that the world property cycle moved in unison: when one country slumped, they all did.

Mr Spinney's policy has been to cut the sprawl, withdrawing from Australia and focusing on North America, the UK and continental Europe.

Typical of Mr Spinney's opportunism was his decision to buy the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building in the City of London's Bishopsgate. The building took the brunt of the IRA blast on 24 April 1993, and Hammerson was able to buy it cheaply in March last year. The company has rebuilt it quickly and intends to welcome tenants back this autumn.

"It's got three attractions," Mr Spinney explained. "It's in a great location, we bought it at a time when the City property market was at its lowest in rental values, and we bought a building where 95 per cent was income-producing and we were receiving insurance cover."

But if that was opportunism, there is a deliberate strategy behind Mr Spinney's decision to concentrate on the Northern Hemisphere. He said: "What we have endeavoured to do is to achieve a portfolio distribution in a more limited number of territories, to provide us with the critical mass and economies of scale to enable the best people to manage it without spreading themselves too thin."

So last October the group dumped its entire Australian portfolio for £251m. A month later it diverted £111m of that to three deals in France.

One was the Espace St Quentin shopping centre in the new town of St Quentin- en-Yvelines, 12 miles south-west of Paris. Mr Spinney said: "With signs of a recovery in retail spending, continuing interest in the French retail sector from French and international investors, and a tight planning environment, we believe this is an opportune time to add to our French portfolio. We will consider buying offices, but only in prime Paris locations."

Leaving aside the currency play - and sterling has been a good currency to be out of lately - Hammerson bought the Espace on a yield of 8.3 per cent, better than the 5 per cent or so available on this side of the Channel.

The second deal was £32.6m for 66 per cent of the property subsidiary of Axa, the French insurer, which owns 55 Boulevard Hausmann in the centre of Paris.

The third deal, which was announced this January, was £24m for a controlling stake in Matignon Trois Fontaines, which owns 88 retail units in Les Trois Fontaines shopping centre in Cergy-Pontoise, a new town north-west of Paris.

In the same week, Hammerson sold more than a million square feet of offices in Calgary for £62m, and wants to sell its two remaining office buildings in the US. "But that does not mean we are pulling out of the US," Mr Spinney insisted. "It is just that we have been rebalancing our portfolio from offices towards retail."

Hammerson's office / retail split has changed from 55/45 to 40/60 in the past two years, as that is where Mr Spinney sees the value shifting, particularly as the European economies recover. He wants to have half the group's assets in the UK, with about a quarter each in North America and continental Europe, by which he means specifically France and Germany.

The notable feature of Hammerson's current investments is the preference for investment in completed properties, rather than going in for development.

"We are in a cash-flow business," Mr Spinney explained, "particularly if inflation remains subdued. In those circumstances developments are not viable, after allowing for building costs and land values. Instead we shall rely on buying properties with an income stream, where we can increase rental values and provide added services. We are fundamentally a service business."

That message has taken time to percolate into the consciousness of the investing institutions at the core of Hammerson's share register, conditioned as they were to the now-discredited previous regime. But as conditions improve and the Spinney strategy begins to prove itself, Hammerson shares should be in for an upward rerating.

Activities International property investment and development.

Share price 329p Prospective yield 4.1% Prospective price-earnings ratio 22.2 Dividend cover 1.4 1993 1994 1995* Income £118.9m £121.3m £124m Pre-tax profit £30.5m £52.7m £56.3m Net profit £21.7m £41.1m £44m Earnings per share 10.2p 14.3p 14.4p Dividend per share 10p 10p 10.5p (* forecast)