New Vicinity boss to drive flagship performance

Chadstone is set for a $600m overhaul. Picture: Supplied.
Chadstone is set for a $600m overhaul. Picture: Supplied.

Vicinity Centres chief operating officer Peter Huddle has one of the biggest tasks in Australian retail property. He is responsible for driving the performance of some of the best luxury malls in the country — including Sydney’s much-loved QVB and Melbourne’s landmark Chadstone — while also turning around some of Vicinity’s less glamorous properties.

The Melbourne-based executive comes to the task well-prepared after an 18-year stint at the Westfield operation, including the senior role in the US, giving him a major exposure to the trends ripping through the local sector.

He was most recently chief operating officer US of Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, giving him oversight of development, design, construction, management, leasing, and running the assets.

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Huddle lived in Los Angeles, providing him with a window into the celebrity world driving the Instagram culture that is a major part of shopping today.

But he is quick to dismiss simplistic comparisons between the markets, citing different influences ranging from US planning controls that have driven oversupply in that country while local development is more constrained.

Huddle acknowledges the US shopping centre environment “by necessity” shifted ahead of local assets as malls changed from their heavy fashion focus and away from stale formats.

Malls also faced up to the bankruptcies in US department stores that saw space come back into the market, forcing structural changes.

“I see the same thing happening in Australia,” Huddle says. “There is bifurcation of the shopping centres happening in the US and the good ones are getting better,” he adds.

The US situation is complicated by the splits between markets, with coastal areas “pretty vibrant” but slowness in central states.

Vicinity Centres COO Peter Huddle at the QVB in Sydney. Picture: John Feder.

On Huddle’s analysis, the US is ahead partly due to the size of its market and the presence of leading digital retailers that are also embracing physical stores.

He cites new concepts in VR, health and micro fitness. “The US has market breadth and a lot of depth by category,” he says. “Australia has market breadth but doesn’t have anywhere near that kind of market depth.”

Supermarkets are also relatively late arrivals in US shopping centres, whereas they are fixtures in Australia. But there are commonalities between the markets.

“We’re using a lot of data to make proper decisions about mixing and what’s in demand for each demographic to ensure the centres remain relevant,” he says.

His mandate is wide with Vicinity, which has effectively split in half with separate teams handling the flagship portfolio, which includes DFO stores, and then a core business focused on bringing centres to life via remixing and some mixed-use projects.

“My role is essentially to bring the entire operating business under one vision,” he says.

All assets are benchmarked and flagship assets are measured against international and local malls. “The aim is to make sure that Vicinity’s premium centres are the first port of call for on-trend retailers that have an interest in Australia,” Huddle says.

He is flexible about accommodating them directly or via partnerships. “We’re looking to have a solution for all of them. We are looking to facilitate partnerships to make those introductions, and bring in local market knowledge,” he says.

Vicinity has only just started on international B2B channels. “A lot of our inroads have been with retailers who have no physical presence in Australia, but Australia rates significantly in sales for their digital customers,” he says.

Huddle says it is “almost irrelevant” how sales are transacted, arguing the company’s job is to facilitate links between customers and retailers.

“The shop itself now is a showroom; it’s now a distribution centre for picking up digital sales,” he says.

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