SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian billionaire Frank Lowy, co-founder of global retail property group Westfield Corp WFD.AX, said on Tuesday he looks forward to being an investor rather than an executive, nearly six decades after opening a small shopping center on Sydney's outskirts.
Lowy, 87, a Holocaust survivor-turned-knighted property tycoon, will retire from Westfield, and his sons Steven and Peter will retire as co-CEOs, marking a dynastic end to their Westfield rule in the wake of a proposed $24.7 billion sale to France’s Unibail-Rodamco.
“It’s more than a lifetime that I’ve put into this company. It’s time, from a personal point of view, for me to move on,” Lowy told reporters via a video link in London. “We want to change our roles; we would rather be investors than executives.”
The Lowy family owns 9 percent of Westfield and, if the cash-and-share deal goes through, will end up with a 2.8 percent stake in Unibail-Rodamco.
The proposed deal is the latest in a retail sector shake-up, with online giants such as Amazon.com Inc AMZN.O putting the squeeze on shopping center operators.
Westfield has melded traditional mall stores with upscale food courts, restaurants, bars, cinemas and boutique fashion outlets to keep people shopping in bricks-and-mortar stores.
“Westfield has assets in the UK and in the United States that are all in mature Amazon markets,” said Morningstar REIT analyst Tony Sherlock. “They’re already 50 percent through that online retail switch.”
In his adopted homeland - he was born in what is now Slovakia - Lowy is seen as an immigrant success story, and as a savvy developer who survived the Internet-fuelled onslaught on the retail sector.
In his early years, Lowy lived in a ghetto in Hungary during World War Two and was moved frequently before being interned in a British detention camp in Cyprus. He has said he later learned that his father was beaten to death at Auschwitz concentration camp.
Lowy arrived in Australia in the 1950s and met surviving members of his family. He went on to co-found Westfield Development Corp with a friend, John Saunders, by developing a shopping center in the downmarket western suburbs of Sydney.
Westfield listed on Australia’s stock exchange in 1960.
Lowy said the Unibail-Rodamco agreement was the second-most important day in Westfield’s history. “The most important was (in) September 1960, when Westfield was born,” he said.
The Australian shopping centers have since been separated from Westfield’s U.S. and European businesses, and are not part of the proposed sale.
Lowy has spent the past decade near the top of Australia’s rich lists - with an estimated wealth this year of A$8.26 billion ($6.23 billion) - and he retains a high public profile in sports administration as a former chairman of Football Federation Australia.
He is often credited with establishing soccer as a leading sport in a country where it has had to vie with the traditionally more popular rugby league, rugby union and Australian Rules football.
But Lowy said that selling Westfield wouldn’t necessarily give him more free time.
“I’m not looking for too much time to spare, but the workload will be totally different. It’s real investing rather than managing.”
($1 = 1.3259 Australian dollars)
Reporting by Swati Pandey and Byron Kaye in SYDNEY; Writing by Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Ian Geoghegan
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