AIB Featured Business Leader – Frank Lowy
Frank Lowy, currently Australia’s fourth richest person, isn’t afraid of risk. Indeed, his early years inured him to uncertainty in a way that most of us can only read about. He was born in Czechoslovakia in 1930. His family was Jewish, his father a travelling salesman. By 1938, Lowy was living in Budapest, which had allied with Nazi Germany and begun to issue anti-Jewish laws. In 1944, Lowy’s father was taken by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz whilst on a mission to buy the family train tickets to a safer place. When he refused to surrender the articles of his Jewish faith, he was killed.
Lowy wasn’t to discover his father’s fate until 1991, when a chance encounter with another Auschwitz survivor gave him the key to his father’s disappearance. Back in 1944, he and his mother were forced into the Budapest ghetto, with the young Lowy risking his life and living off his wits to evade both the Gestapo and anti-Semitic gangs. Of his three siblings, two went into hiding elsewhere and a third sent to a labour camp. After the war, he attempted to move to Israel, expecting his family to follow. En route to British-controlled Palestinian territory, he was caught by the British and sent to a detention camp in Cyprus. Meanwhile his sister had moved to Australia with her new husband, bringing his mother and brother over when they could. Lowy made it to Israel, but joined the rest of his family in Australia in 1952.
He hadn’t long set foot on Australian soil before he met his wife Shirley at a Jewish dance. Her mother was unimpressed with this scrappy refugee boy, barely able to speak English, but Lowy was determined to make something of himself. He started a business delivering continental meats to the growing European migrant population of Sydney. One of his customers was another former refugee, John Saunders, who owned a milk bar. The pair joined forces and opened a delicatessen together. They soon decided that there was more money in developing stores and opened their first Westfield Shopping Centre in Blacktown, Sydney in 1958, so called because it was in the west of the city and built on a redeveloped field.
Shopping centres were something of a novelty at the time, and the local population embraced the idea of a one-stop destination for their retail needs. Westfield Holdings, Ltd, was listed on the Stock Exchange in 1960, and the company built several more centres in NSW before expanding into Victoria and Queensland. Soon, the pair were building centres across Australia and into the United States.
By 1986, with Lowy’s three sons coming of age, Saunders saw his own role diminishing and sold most of his stake, retiring as a director of the company. Today, two of Lowy’s sons are joint group managing directors for the company, while the third looks after the family’s private investments. Meanwhile, the Westfield behemoth has opened stores in New Zealand and Britain, weathering even the Global Financial Crisis which hit the same year that Westfield’s flagship London store opened. “Where there are people, there are shoppers”, Lowy told The Australian.
On the surface, Lowy’s reputation is for hard hearted business acumen. He was a strict disciplinarian with his boys, and is reputed to be tough both on his tenants and his competition. “You can’t get there by allowing people to push you over”, he says. But Lowy’s time and money also goes into philanthropic endeavours that have seen him becoming one of Australia’s most celebrated citizens.
In 1995, Lowy was appointed a Director of the Reserve Bank of Australia, serving until 2005. In April 2003, fifty years after arriving in Australia, he launched the Lowy Institute for International Policy. Widely considered Australia’s leading think tank, the Lowy Institute consults on nonpartisan grounds to provide research and perspectives on international policy trends affecting Australia.
In 2000, Lowy was made a Companion of the Order of Australia for both his business activities and philanthropy. His contributions have been widespread including significant sums to cancer research and cardiac health. Lowy was awarded the title of Australia’s leading philanthropist by Philanthropy Australia, having made contributions of $10 million in 2002. Although he originally said that he would retire by 60, it wasn’t until his eightieth birthday in October 2010 that Lowy announced his formal retirement as Executive Chairman of the Westfield Group.
Lowy was also the Chairman of the Football Federation Australia from 2003 to 2015, spearheading a challenge that many considered impossible: returning soccer to the mainstream in Australia. Although he lost the bid for Australia to host the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, his work for FFA has represented another mountain to climb. “The big question”, he asked The Sydney Morning Herald “is if you reach the mountain, what then? What do you do then? I suppose you die”.
At 86 years old, a multi-billionaire who once scavenged for his supper, Frank Lowy has climbed a lot of mountains and scaled a lot of peaks.
This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: The Holocaust Explained, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian, Lowy Institute, Crikey and Forbes.
Image credit: The Daily Telegraph