This has been a transformative year for the billionaire Weston family’s businesses, with a series of changes that have shaken up the leadership of the retail empire and jettisoned assets with deep roots in its history.
As 2021 comes to a close, the family has finalized a deal to sell British department store operator Selfridges Group, letting go of the bulk of its luxury-retail operations except for Holt Renfrew.
The deal, announced Thursday, will see Thailand-based Central Group and Austria-based Signa Group take over group’s 18 department stores in the U.K. and Europe in a joint venture. They include the high-end Selfridges department-store chain, Arnotts and Brown Thomas in Ireland, and de Bijenkorf in the Netherlands. Canadian luxury-store chain Holt Renfrew will continue to be held by the Westons’ private holding company, Toronto-based Wittington Investments Ltd. The deal is worth nearly £4-billion ($6.87-billion), according to a source with knowledge of the matter.
The sale would be the latest in a string of changes, which included an executive shuffle at Loblaw Cos. Ltd. and strategic review of the grocery giant’s initiatives; a move toward new leadership at Wittington, where corporate lawyer Cornell Wright joined in the spring and will take over for Pavi Binning as president on Jan. 1, 2022; and George Weston Ltd. selling the bakery operations that were the foundation of the family business going back to 1882.
The Westons also suffered a personal loss this year with the death of patriarch W. Galen Weston, who reshaped the family’s businesses over more than four decades in retail, food distribution and real estate.
His son, Galen G. Weston, is controlling shareholder of Wittington, and chairman and CEO of George Weston Ltd., which Wittington controls. George Weston has majority ownership of Choice Properties Real Estate Investment Trust and Loblaw – where Mr. Weston is also chairman, and returned to the role of president this spring after the departure of Sarah Davis.
The senior Mr. Weston was responsible for the family’s move into luxury retail. He purchased a stake in Dublin-based Brown Thomas in 1971, and bought the entire business in 1983. The acquisition of Holt Renfrew came three years later.
Wittington purchased the venerable Selfridges – first founded in London in 1908 by Harry Gordon Selfridge – for US$1-billion in 2003. Selfridges Group acquired luxury department-store chain de Bijenkorf in 2010, and Montreal-based Ogilvy department stores in 2011. (The Montreal flagship is now known as Holt Renfrew Ogilvy.)
The Selfridge buyers, Central and Signa, already together own luxury department stores including Rinascente in Italy, Globus in Switzerland and The KaDeWe Group, with operations in Germany and Austria.
“The acquisition of Selfridges Group by Central and Signa is testament to the successful realisation of my father’s vision for an iconic group of beautiful, truly experiential, department stores,” Alannah Weston, Mr. Weston’s daughter and chairman of Selfridges Group, said in a statement Thursday. “I am proud to pass the baton to the new owners who are family businesses that take a long-term view. I know they will fully embrace that vision and continue to empower our incredible team to take the Group from strength to strength.”
Galen G. Weston is also making changes at Canada’s largest grocery chain, which underperformed its peers in the industry in 2020, even as the COVID-19 pandemic led to soaring sales – first as panicked shoppers stocked their pantries, and then as Canadians stayed home more and began buying more groceries to cook for themselves.
Even as all grocers reported eye-popping sales numbers in 2020, Loblaw lagged other retailers in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA), and same-store sales growth – an important metric in the industry that tracks sales increases not accounted for by new store openings. Loblaw’s share price hit a two-year low this past February.
The company announced Mr. Weston’s return as president in late March, along with George Weston president and chief financial officer Richard Dufresne expanding his role to include CFO of Loblaw, and the addition of veteran retail executive Robert Sawyer as chief operating officer. The share price has risen significantly, from just under $61 in late February to more than $103.
In July, Loblaw launched a strategic review of initiatives that were prioritized under Ms. Davis’s tenure, as Mr. Weston highlighted the need to focus on “retail fundamentals” – an area which, he said at the time, “has perhaps not received as much focus over the last few years as it should have.” The company subsequently decided to overhaul approximately 20 of its unprofitable locations, converting some to discount formats and closing three.
BMO Capital Markets analyst Peter Sklar wrote in a research note this month that investors responded favourably to the executive changes, and to some “catch-up” compared to a disappointing 2020. “Our concern is that unless Loblaw has made sufficient structural changes that will lead to long-term earnings outperformance, Loblaw’s stock may have overreached on the upside,” Mr. Sklar wrote.
Like other grocers, Loblaw is also coping with supply chain disruptions and rising food inflation.
“From an operating standpoint these are the times when strong merchandising execution and agility will separate the pack,” Bank of Nova Scotia analyst Patricia Baker wrote in a research note last month. Such an environment makes it important that Loblaw is moving past “a rather too broad strategic agenda and is now focused on improving retail execution,” she added.
However in a note also released last month, CFRA Research analyst Arun Sundaram noted that Walmart has been investing heavily in Canada and could take market share as shoppers wary of rising prices watch their grocery bills more closely.
But while it was far from the most significant business in the Weston family’s portfolio, perhaps no change this year had greater symbolic significance than the decision to sell off the Weston Foods bakery division, which produces brands that include Wonder Bread, ACE Bakery and Country Harvest.
The family’s roots in Canadian retail began 139 years ago, when Galen G. Weston’s great-grandfather, George Weston, opened his first bakery in Toronto – striking out on his own after working as a baker’s boy selling buns door to door.
The $1.1-billion sale of the fresh and frozen bakery business to Toronto-based FGF Brands Inc. closed this month. The company has agreed to sell the rest of the operation, which produces cookies, crackers, cones and wafers for retail and food service businesses, to Illinois-based Hearthside Food Solutions LLC for $370-million.
Executives decided that George Weston Ltd. would focus on its core retail and real estate operations, Mr. Weston has said. But in a statement announcing the first deal in October, he acknowledged the piece of family history going out the door.
“The Weston Foods business has been the foundation for the Weston Group in Canada since its establishment in 1882 and the decision to sell it was a difficult one,” he said in the statement.