Morrison resists calls for radical property plans

 
Kasmira Jefford
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WM MORRISON is expected to resist calls by activists for a radical overhaul of its property portfolio, insisting instead that it will make some modest disposals within its freehold estate.

In the aftermath of disappointing Christmas trading figures last week the supermarket group has faced demands from some dissident investors to take the knife to its freehold estate in order to buy back shares or reward frustrated investors with greater dividends.

Britain’s fourth largest supermarket group is due to update investors in March on a review of its £9bn property portfolio, and has indicated that it will sell and lease back some of its supermarkets and distribution centres.

It owns the freehold to around 90 per cent of the portfolio – much more than any of its rival supermarkets – and a reduction of just 10 per cent could raise as much as £800m.

Activist investors including Elliot Advisors, which has a stake of less than one per cent, are said to be eyeing the company with a view to pressing it into a more radical shake-up of its portfolio.

But while Morrisons has indicated it plans to return some capital to shareholders, it insisted that it wants to remain an “overwhelmingly” a freehold business.

Its vast freehold estate is a legacy of Sir Ken Morrison’s reign, who saw it as key that it should retain ownership of stores rather than become dependent on onerous lease agreements.

The group’s core institutional shareholders are understood to be concerned over plans to sell off part of its estate, preferring it to concentrate on other issues such as growing its online business and tackling discounters.

Morrisons, which has been hampered by the lack of online presence, launched its website last week and is also aggressively growing its convenience store network

The company declined to comment.

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