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French group to take over Westfield malls for $15.7 billion

Three Tampa Bay malls may soon be under new management. French real estate company Unibail-Rodamco has agreed to buy Australia-based shopping mall operator Westfield Corp. for $15.7 billion in cash and shares.

"Westfield would arguably be the best or one of the best mall operators in the country," said Jan Rogers Kniffen, CEO of retail analyst company J. Rogers Kniffen Worldwide. "They’re selling because they have the opportunity to sell, not because they have stress."

Westfield operates three malls in Tampa Bay, with locations, in Brandon, Citrus Park and the Countryside area of Clearwater.

The companies together would have 104 shopping centers in 13 countries that bring in an estimated 1.2 billion visitors a year.

Unibail-Rodamco invests globally in commercial property, from malls to office space. Westfield, which started off in Sydney in the 1950s, is known for its 35 upscale shopping centers in major metropolitan areas, particularly in the U.S. and Britain.

Unibail-Rodamco SE said Tuesday that its offer values Westfield shares at $7.55 each, a premium of 17.8 percent on Monday’s closing price. Based on the number of outstanding shares, that values the takeover at $15.7 billion.

Frank Lowy, Westfield’s chairman, said "the transaction announced today is the culmination of the strategic journey Westfield has been on since its 2014 restructure."

In the new company, Lowy would chair an advisory board while the CEO of Unibail-Rodamco, Christophe Cuvillier, would retain that role.

The deal was recommended by the boards of both companies but is subject to approval by shareholders and regulators.

The sale comes at a time when malls — and brick and mortars — across the country are struggling to adapt. By May, 14 retailers had filed for bankruptcy in 2017, more than in the entirety of 2016.

The most successful malls, retail expert Rogers Kniffen said, are adapting by bringing in higher-end stores and more dining options.

"It’s kind of a natural selection thing," he said. Those that don’t adapt end up closing.

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Westfield, for example, brought in a Whole Foods Market into the Westfield Countryside mall, replacing a Sears in recent years, while International Plaza added an upscale gym and spa in place of a Robb & Stucky.

A large driver for the changes, Rogers Kniffen said, is competition from the internet. Massive online retailers such as Walmart and Amazon are simply hard to compete with.

"Virtually all the growth is coming online," Rogers Kniffen said. In fact this holiday season is expected to be the first time online spending surpasses in-store spending.

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Times wires were used in this report. Contact Malena Carollo at [email protected] or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo.

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