Clockwork shift at Centro helm

January wouldn't be January without an announcement of some significance from Centro, the shopping centre landlord best known in Australian corporate history for blowing up at the start of the global financial crisis and helping to send the stock market plunging in the first month of 2008.

January wouldn't be January without an announcement of some significance from Centro, the shopping centre landlord best known in Australian corporate history for blowing up at the start of the global financial crisis and helping to send the stock market plunging in the first month of 2008.

For those aficionados of the stock - there aren't actually that many of the original retail investors left in it - it is worth getting out the red felt-tip pen and drawing a big ring around the early to mid-part of January 2014, for instance.

Given Centro's recent propensity to change chief executives every two years, that's when there's more than likely to be a new person appointed to the helm.

Not that I wish to cast doubt on the abilities of Steven Sewell, who this week was named as the successor to Robert Tsenin to run the latest manifestation of the group, the newly-(re)named Centro Retail Australia.

Judging by Sewell's resume and that Centro Retail is the cleaned-up product of the previously debt-laden Centro Properties Group, the new boss has as good a chance as any of his predecessors of making a longer fist of the job, not withstanding the fact the company is considered to be a decent takeover target.

Sewell, who is chief executive of real estate investment trust Charter Hall Retail, is due to join Centro in April and was understandably optimistic about his new employers' prospects when quoted in the ASX statement that announced his appointment on Tuesday.

Describing its $4.4 billion portfolio of assets as "impressive", including 43 shopping centres across Australia, Sewell looked forward to converting the "excellent opportunities for income and capital growth" for the benefit of all stakeholders - aka those holders of Centro's $2.9 billion debt who swapped that dosh for equity in the new entity.

Fair enough, since that's exactly what the lenders/owners of Centro Retail Australia will be looking to him to do. Sewell can thank his two immediate predecessors, Tsenin and Glenn Rufrano, for getting Centro to where it is today after it spectacularly imploded under Andrew Scott's leadership in January 2008.

Rufrano, who was previously chief executive of the US group New Plan, which Centro bought in April 2007 during its debt-funded spending, and then became the head of the merged American businesses, was brought over to Australia that January to begin the extremely complicated process of unwinding Centro's complex and mammoth structure and keeping its bankers at bay.

This he did with a large amount of success. But it was an exhausting process and Rufrano, keen to return to the US, handed over the reins to Tsenin, then a Centro non-executive director, whose appointment was unveiled almost exactly two years to the day from Rufrano's, on January 5, 2010.

Tsenin, a former finance director at Lend Lease, had the task of finishing the organisational restructure and debt reduction plan (which subsequently became the debt-for-equity swap approved by investors in November), a job that took him nearly two years to complete.

Now it's Tsenin's time to move on after a similarly exhausting, but in the end successful, experience of getting investors, lenders and other stakeholders over the line.

As the investment bank JPMorgan Chase aptly put it when shares in the new Centro Retail began trading on the ASX last month: "Enough of the corporate wreckage has been removed to reveal the quality underlying assets."

Sewell is the beneficiary of that clean-up and no doubt hopes that he will get more than two years to show just how good the "new" Centro can perform.

He certainly stands to be well rewarded if he does, with a base salary of $900,000, a sign-on bonus of $350,000, short-term incentives of up to 150 per cent of his basic pay and a long-term incentive scheme that could earn him $1 million worth of performance rights; unless, of course, somebody lobs a successful takeover bid and Sewell becomes the subject of what is now a "classic all change at the top" Centro announcement. Except that it might not be in January this time around.

While he's been banging the drum to attract more tourists - and wealthy ones at that - to visit Australia and presumably his casinos, James Packer will no doubt be pleased that his expensive each-way bet on setting up shop in Macau is paying off nicely.

Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that casino revenue in the former Portuguese colony had risen 25 per cent last month to 23.6 billion patacas (about $3 billion).

Considered to be the world's largest gambling centre and the only place in China where casinos are legal, its full year revenue rose 42 per cent to 268 billion patacas, according to Macau's Gaming Inspection and

Co-ordination Bureau.

Most of that additional spending was by Chinese tourists, who have helped triple gambling revenue in Macau over the past four years. The city hosted 25.5 million visitors in the first 11 months of last year, a 12 per cent rise on the previous corresponding period. Just over half came from the mainland.

Little wonder then that the world's major casino operators have all flocked to Macau, including Packer, through his joint venture Melco Crown Entertainment with Lawrence Ho, who predicted at the end of November that gaming revenue would grow between 15 per cent and 20 per cent this year.

Rival Galaxy Entertainment Group forecasts that could go even higher - at 25 per cent - and you probably wouldn't want to bet against it.

Michael West is on leave.

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