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UPDATE 1-Westfield mall owner Unibail replaces CEO as investors push for European focus

(Adds shares, details on management changes)

PARIS, Nov 19 (Reuters) - Shopping mall group Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW) replaced its CEO, just weeks after a small group of rebel investors scored a surprise victory in their campaign for a radical strategy shift.

The company said late on Wednesday that the supervisory board had appointed Jean-Marie Tritant, who runs the group’s U.S. business and has been at the company for 20 years, as the new CEO and chair of the management board.

Current CEO Christophe Cuvillier, who has been in the post since 2013, would stay in the role until Jan. 1, the company said.

French telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel teamed up last month with URW’s former boss Leon Bressler to oppose the company’s planned 3.5 billion euro ($4.2 billion) rights issue, which shareholders finally rejected on Nov. 10.

The rebel investor consortium, which owns just under 5% of URW’s shares, gathered rapid backing for its campaign, which includes a push to unwind the company’s 2017 acquisition of Westfield by selling off some Westfield assets in the United States and refocusing on Europe.

Niel and Bressler, who gained board seats in the process, argued the capital hike was highly dilutive and blamed the Westfield purchase for Unibail’s heavy debt.

Cuvillier had called for the rights issue as a means of protecting URW’s credit ratings.

URW counts leading European malls such as the Forum des Halles in Paris, Madrid’s La Vaguada and Westfield malls in London among its assets.

The coronavirus pandemic has hammered retailers that have been forced to close on and off this year, with a knock-on effect on rental income for shopping mall owners.

Bressler, who was chairman and chief executive of Unibail from 1992 to 2006, was elected last week to head up URW’s supervisory board.

URW shares, which have lost nearly 60% this year, had jumped 12% on Monday on reports of a broad management shake-up. They were 2.6% lower in early trading on Thursday.

Analysts at Berenberg said in a note that pressure on rents and valuations for shopping centres would continue despite hopes emerging for COVID-19 vaccines, adding they were awaiting details of URW’s new strategy. (Reporting by Matthieu Protard and Blandine Henault; Editing by Jan Harvey, Sarah White and Susan Fenton)

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