Vicinity ‘left exposed’ to security threats after senior management shake-up (2024)

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By Simon Johanson

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One of Australia’s largest shopping mall owners significantly downgraded security management at its 57 major centres around the country in the month before the deadly Westfield Bondi Junction attack, potentially compromising its ability to respond to major emergencies or crisis.

ASX-listed shopping centre behemoth Vicinity Centres retrenched its most senior manager of security and intelligence and let go other senior security staff in the weeks before the Bondi Junction attack, leaving it without key security leaders at the time of the murderous rampage at rival mall owner Scentre Group’s shopping mecca in Sydney.

Vicinity ‘left exposed’ to security threats after senior management shake-up (1)

Vicinity manages the Chadstone mega mall, Emporium Melbourne, Queen Victoria Building and Chatswood Chase in Sydney, the Myer Centre in Brisbane, and a number of Direct Factory Outlets (DFOs) around the country.

The stabbings at Westfield Bondi Junction two weeks ago, which left six people dead, rocked Sydney and the rest of Australia, prompting fears for the safety of shoppers.

Between them, Scentre Group – which manages Australia’s Westfield malls, including Bondi Junction where the attack unfolded – and Vicinity control about 80 per cent of the country’s biggest centres, where millions of Australians shop each day.

Shopping centres, like football stadiums and rock concert venues, are designated as mass gathering places and operators have a responsibility to protect their customers, said Neil Fergus, chief executive of international security consultancy firm Intelligent Risks.

In the weeks before the Bondi Junction atrocity, Vicinity retrenched its high-profile security chief Peter De Santo, a former counterterrorism intelligence head at Victoria Police and divisional commander in organised crime.

De Santo headed up the centre manager’s internal security team and was responsible for advising Vicinity’s executives and board on terrorist and other critical threats, liaising with the top echelons of Australia’s police forces and other security agencies, as well as overseeing security across Vicinity’s operations.

His departure precipitated a cascade of crucial staff changes at the $8.6 billion shopping centre giant.

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Another senior security manager – the firm’s national crisis and emergency manager – also left around the same time and De Santo’s replacement, recruited internally from NSW, resigned a day before the Bondi Junction attack, effectively leaving the company’s internal security team rudderless on the day of the rampage, a source with detailed knowledge of the company, who didn’t want to be identified to speak freely, said.

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Vicinity would not confirm if it has since filled the security chief’s role.

A spokesperson said the company made the staff changes to “uplift capabilities” and ensure Vicinity was better placed to manage “all aspects of security and risk management, at both the operational [shopping centres] and corporate levels.”

An email from Vicinity’s chief legal, risk and ESG officer, Carolyn Reynolds, seen by this masthead, says the mall giant made major changes to its security and intelligence operations across multiple centres in March this year.

De Santo’s, and two other security roles, were replaced by a national security operations manager who now reports to the head of property management.

The reshuffle moved responsibility for security, crisis and emergency management to individual centres. “Relationships with local authorities and other relevant stakeholders will be maintained at the asset level through the centre management team,” Reynolds said.

“Security issues will be resolved through the centre management teams with input from the national security operations manager,” the internal email said.

Fergus said it was a “reasonable presumption” that the absence of key internal security staff had left Vicinity exposed. “They are absolutely critical, and I would suggest non-negotiable.”

“That person is there not only to protect the corporation’s reputation and financials, but to protect the life and safety of staff, visitors and customers into the precinct. I would think the board would have a major issue in terms of its governance,” Fergus said.

In another violent incident, a teenager was stabbed during an alleged knife fight between six men last Thursday at Highpoint shopping centre in Melbourne, further heightening safety concerns. The company said its security staff were at the scene immediately and police arrived within minutes.

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Just days before the Westfield attack in Sydney, Scentre distributed a crucial safety pamphlet to tenants at some of its Sydney malls, telling them how to hide customers, lock doors and turn off lights if confronted by an armed offender.

Scentre’s national security and counterterrorism efforts are headed up by John Yates, a former assistant commissioner of London’s Metropolitan police.

De Santo declined to comment when approached by this masthead, as he is in dispute with Vicinity at the Fair Work Commission.

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Vicinity ‘left exposed’ to security threats after senior management shake-up (2024)
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