China’s shopping centre king turns in his crown

Less than week after being knighted by the Queen, ‘s king of retail malls, Frank Lowy, is abdicating this throne – selling his stake in his international empire to European giant Unibail-Rodamco.

And his timing is impeccable.

Retail malls are by no means dead but the economics of running them is changing thanks to growth in online shopping.

Around 2009, the legendary investment adage went something along the lines of: if you invested $1000 dollars when Sir Frank floated Westfield in 1960, you would be worth about $148 million.

But if you invested in Westfield 18 months ago, you would have lost money even if you accepted the $10-a-share offer now on the table.

In the same way retail has been disrupted by the internet – Lowy the Westfield landlord has already started to feel the same pressure.

The landlord is no longer at the top of the food chain and the legendary tough treatment Westfield dished out to its retail tenants is changing. Instead it is giving way to retailers like Solomon Lew and many others who are closing stores unless rents are renegotiated.

Ultimately the power continues to shift to the customer – who gets to choose whether they shop in a physical store or with plenty of internet-enabled transparency, which gives them the ability to minimise the price they pay.

This is a style of business that wouldn’t suit Lowy.

For more than 50 years, Lowy was the innovator in retail property. Having come to post-war in 1952, he teamed up with another immigrant, John Saunders, to build shopping centres in and ultimately in the UK and Europe.

It was the combination of the smarts, toughness, entrepreneurship and hard work that took them from rags to riches.

He certainly fathered the retail mall model in . And he made himself and his family billionaires, placing them in the upper echelons of the richest in with an estimated wealth of $8.2 billion.

Most of Westfield’s retail centres are at the higher end of the market that has weathered the internet better than strip shopping or smaller, more regional/suburban shopping centres.

And their ability to weather continued digital disruption should be enhanced by the type of massive consolidation – the larger company that will emerge from the takeover of Westfield will span 27 of the world’s biggest and wealthiest markets. And it has already identified ???100 million of cost-cutting measures.

But it won’t have a Lowy around the board table or in its management ranks. Lowy says he will retain an investment but it will be small percentage of shares on issue.

Those malls that do flourish will ultimately evolve into entertainment complexes that cater to a range of activities, theatres, restaurants, sports etc – and some shopping.

Lowy has had plenty of time to see what the future might look like. Back in 2014, the family undertook a major reorganisation of the corporate empire which saw it sell down its ownership of n shopping centres and focus its resources on the international assets – which are primarily in the US and UK.

The n business is now called Scentre and the family owns only about 4 per cent. The Lowys have an interest in the internationally focused Westfield Corp of about 10 per cent and are the largest shareholders.

There has been sporadic speculation for around three years that Westfield was the object of some interest by other international retail property giants.

As the rumour goes, they couldn’t settle on a price with Lowy.

But he is clearly smart enough to see the time won’t get any better if he wants to deal.

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