February 23, 2024
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Dubroff: Simon, Macerich brawl over mall empires could squeeze the little guy


Henry Dubroff

Henry Dubroff

The Oaks Mall in Thousand Oaks, Camarillo Premium Outlets and Pacific View Mall in Ventura are the crown jewels of retailing in Ventura County.

Soon we will know if they will have a common owner.

The battle between Santa Monica-based Macerich, owner of Pacific View and The Oaks, and Simon Property Group, owner of the outlets in Camarillo, took a St. Patrick’s Day twist when Macerich rejected Simon’s earlier hostile takeover offer, valued at $16 billion, or $22 billion if debt is included.

Many people think the rebuff left the door open to negotiating a higher price.

Simon Property Group is based in Indianapolis. But billionaire Herb Simon, who built the company with his late brother Mel and who serves as chairman emeritus, calls the Santa Barbara area home much of the time. His wife and kids live in Montecito.

The bid for Macerich would also give Simon Property control over La Cumbre Shopping Center on upper State Street in Santa Barbara; it already owns the Premium Outlets in Pismo Beach.

At press time, it appeared Simon Property could very well prevail, creating a retailing behemoth that operates a near-monopoly on mall ownership along the Highway 101 corridor and elsewhere. The mall giant will have tremendous influence when it comes to setting rents that retailers will pay to occupy valuable mall space — for local companies and national chains.

The fact is that for all its rhetoric about wanting to protect America’s middle class, the Obama administration has done very little to maintain a competitive landscape. It has greenlighted big airline mergers, office supply chain combos and mega-media deals. It has allowed pharma giants to gobble up each other without raising an eyebrow.

With interest rates low and the economy in a sluggish recovery, the rush to merge is going to accelerate in the final years of this administration. The Simon-Macerich deal is just one example.

But there are other things at work as well. The rise of lifestyle centers like Rick Caruso’s Thousand Oaks Promenade and the surprising resurgences of Shea Properties’ Collection at RiverPark have given the malls some new competition.

Simon Property does bring some advantages to the table, compared to Macerich, which operates as a real estate investment trust, passing most of its cash along to investors.

Mel Simon’s son, David, now serves as company chairman. When the recession hit, the Simon people cleverly figured out that Americans, rich and poor, wanted to buy stuff on sale.

It plunged big into outlet mall ownership and invested heavily in digital marketing to attract younger shoppers. It has a laser-like focus on regional malls and “premium” outlets, with an edgy look on its website designed to appeal to young, female shoppers.

In Camarillo and elsewhere in California, it’s turned these centers into huge destinations for tourists from Asia.

Macerich, in contrast, came into the recession with too much debt. It has been able to weather the recession with most of its big mall operations intact and it’s made big improvements to The Oaks. But middle class shoppers aren’t spending the way they did before 2008, and they’re increasingly going online to order clothing and other soft goods.

The bottom line is that Simon Property has a number of advantages in pursuing Macerich. It has huge leverage with existing tenants, and it has cash and superior marketing skills.

It also has favorable antitrust winds blowing in its direction and the ability to drive sales for its properties via the Web. Cities may come to appreciate the rising sales tax revenue that comes from better performing malls.

But with one company potentially controlling that much retail square footage on the Highway 101 corridor, from Ventura County to Pismo Beach, the opportunity for leverage clearly will lie in the hands of Simon Property. And the barriers to entry for new retail competitors will get higher.