A firm representing shareholders of Washington Real Estate Investment Trust asked the company’s board this week to either explain where the company was headed or put it up for sale.
Founded in 1960 and focused exclusively on the Washington area, Rockville-based WRIT is the oldest of the country’s publicly traded real estate investment trusts, which hold property long-term and pass on almost all of their taxable income to investors.
WRIT had been a model of stability for 50 years, increasing its dividend for 202 straight quarters until 2012.
Since then, the company has been attempting to reinvent itself. It hired a new chief executive and embarked on a comprehensive strategic review that led the company to sell two large portfolios, industrial property and medical office buildings that constituted about a third of its company’s value.
The changes are not sitting well with clients of McAdams Wright Ragen, a Seattle brokerage and advisory firm.
Collectively, McAdams clients own 3.9 percent of WRIT shares. In a Feb. 24 letter to Board of Trustees Chairman Charles Nason, McAdams Wright analyst Mike Roarke wrote that since his firm had advised clients to purchase WRIT shares in March of 2011, WRIT had cut its quarterly dividend by 30.8 percent and that its stock (excluding dividend reinvestments) had lost 6.1 percent.
“Following Washington REIT’s recent property review process it’s now worrisome to us that the management team is either unwilling or unable to clearly explain how they intend to grow these key financial measures and what they are broadly targeting for achievement on these fronts over the next few years,” Roarke wrote.
“In absence of a real growth strategy complete with general financial targets that are being pursued over a reasonable amount of time, we request the Board of Trustees consider a sale of the entire company,” Roarke urged.
Bill Camp, WRIT executive vice president and chief financial officer, issued a statement saying the company welcomes feedback from shareholders and was positioning the company to create value in the future. As part of that strategy, the company is focusing on high-end office, residential and retail properties in urban areas.
As proof, the company announced Tuesday it had acquired Yale West, a 216-unit apartment building in the Mount Vernon Triangle neighborhood of Northwest Washington.
The deal, Camp wrote, exemplifies WRIT’s new strategy “as this is a high-quality property with significant potential. We are confident that Washington REIT is executing the right growth strategy for the company and for all of our shareholders.”
WRIT is not yet five months into the tenure of Paul T. McDermott as chief executive, and its stock price has fallen from $25.61 on McDermott’s first day Oct. 1 to $24.27 when it opened Tuesday morning.
McDermott succeeded George F. “Skip” McKenzie, who served as president and chief executive beginning in 2007. McDermott and the WRIT board recently emerged from a four-month review of operations and performance of all of its properties in order to reset the company’s course.
“I think Paul has gone through the review. He’s trying to become less suburban and more urban, just like everybody,” said Don Wood, president and chief executive of Federal Realty Investment Trust, another REIT based in Rockville.
“You’ve got a new guy in charge, that from my perspective deserves a chance to work with his board and his team to right the ship,” Wood added.
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