After steering his family’s 200-year-old empire through some of Hong Kong’s most turbulent times in recent memory, Merlin Swire is stepping down as chairman of Swire Properties and Swire Pacific, according to an announcement to the Hong Kong stock exchange late Friday.
“I am proud of the resilience that the entire Swire Pacific group has shown over the past three years, in particular the resilience which the team at Cathay Pacific has shown in the face of COVID-19,” Swire said in a statement. “I am also delighted by the progress made in strengthening and expanding our businesses in the Chinese Mainland.”
The 47-year-old is handing off his roles at Swire Group’s two largest listed vehicles after Swire Pacific, which controls Swire Properties and Cathay Pacific, declared its first-ever loss in 2020.
Swire will continue as chairman until 24 August of this year, when he will resume his role as chief executive of John Swire and Sons Ltd, the private family holding company that controls the group’s listed entities as well as other businesses globally. Swire Properties chief executive Guy Bradley will take over the chairman roles at Swire Pacific and Swire Properties as Merlin Swire abdicates.
The sixth generation of the Swire family to head the family-controlled empire had taken the controls on 1 July 2018, and it has steered the Swire Group through a period of extended social unrest in Hong Kong followed by a pandemic that continues to keep the territory’s borders sealed.
During 2020 Cathay Pacific lost $2.8 billion, which helped to drag Swire Pacific to a $1.42 billion loss for the year, while 2021 continues to see much of the airline’s fleet grounded.
Swire Properties saw its 2020 revenues fall 6 percent to $1.7 billion, while still reporting a profit of $528 million. In the fourth quarter of last year, Swire Properties sold off the Cityplaza One office tower in Hong Kong to a consortium led by Gaw Capital, Schroder Pamfleet and Manulife for $1.27 billion, or about 18 percent less per square foot than it had received in the sale of Cityplaza Three and Four in late 2018.
Despite the recent setbacks, Merlin Swire expressed faith in the outlook for the group and for the markets the group relies on.
“We are confident in Hong Kong’s prospects and remain determined to grow our businesses here,” Swire said. “Closer cooperation and integration with other cities in the Greater Bay Area will bring great benefits to Hong Kong and drive the city’s economic growth, and we plan to participate in that growth.”
Swire will continue to serve as a director of Swire Pacific, Swire Properties and Cathay Pacific. He will also spend “a substantial part of each year in the Chinese Mainland and Hong Kong, engaging with stakeholders and business partners as Swire deepens and expands its presence”.
Blackburn Named CEO
Now 55, Guy Bradley is assuming the top-level roles at Swire Pacific and Swire Properties after first joining the group in 1987. The Oxford University graduate has been chief executive of Swire Properties since 2011 after previously serving as chief operating officer for Hong Kong at the company, as well as filling the role of chief executive for mainland China.
“The group is facing significant challenges in 2021, but I am confident of its long term prospects,” Bradley said. “We have a strong balance sheet and an extensive pipeline of investment opportunities in the Chinese Mainland, and we intend to deliver on them for our shareholders.”
As Bradley moves up, Timothy Blackburn, currently chief executive for Swire Properties’ mainland operation, will become a director and chief executive of the company.
The change in leadership at Swire Group also includes Cathay Pacific chairman Patrick Healy becoming a director of Swire Pacific, at the same time that he leaves the board of Swire Properties. Mabelle Ma Suk Ching, who serves as director of development and valuations at Swire Properties, is also being named as a board director.