Although British Land today announced some, well, disturbing numbers they were still considered good compared to rival Land Securities. Nonetheless, this is a story with previous.

Back in October, 2007 British Land pulled the sale of their £1.7bn Meadowhall shopping centre in Newcastle saying, in a statement somewhat guilty of complacency, that:

"the uncertainty in financial markets has made the prospect of realising an appropriate value unlikely" (ie "we can't find a buyer").

At the time Chief Exec Stephen Hester, relatively recently installed from the banking industry, added cheerfully:

"While we would have liked to find investment partners for Meadowhall, the centre's prospects together with the success of our extensive disposal programme elsewhere, make the decision to hold a relatively painless one"

Painless.

Come February 2008 and Mr Hester was heard announcing that British Land valuers were being "encouraged" to write down assets (painlessly, presumably). In spite of this discovery that it is actually markets that set "appropriate value" Mr Hester, still to all intents and purposes eminently content, suggested that the good thing about the speed asset deterioration was that it:

"augurs well for a shortened duration of the downcycle".

Shortened.

But enough stick. Fast forward to November and where is serial optimist Mr Hester to be found these days as British Land enjoys the "shortened" two year downturn with an 11% decline in its property portfolio? Why, he is over in the CEO position at the Royal Bank of Scotland.

In his brief tenure in this new role Mr Hester has already provided the business public with quotes that contrast interestingly with his prior Panglossian output:

  • There are no "sacred cows'' (such as Meadowhall Shopping Centers) on the RBS balance sheet
  • insightfully, "the Royal Bank of Scotland did get itself over-extended at the peak of the bull market"
  • decisively, "a sharp restructuring is needed to ensure that the strength of our underlying businesses shines through"
  • with the ring of confession, "None of us has a crystal ball, but I suspect it will get worse before it gets better"
  • (and maybe choicest of the lot) previous RBS management had fostered a "bull market culture"

None of which indicates, of course, Mr Hester to be either clever or stupid or without a sense of irony. But it does prove his gift for the political (did I mention amongst his first RBS acts was the prudent but ass-covering hire of Mckinsey to review RBS from top to bottom?), the value of great timing and the blessing of being lucky.

That does not make him immune to this which Mr Hester described as "a trashy piece of journalism". As the well-renumerated head of the one of the largest lenders to the UK's non fox-hunting population he will need to get used to it.


Related links:
British Land: "the worst should now be behind us"

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