Frank Lowy’s spectacular fall from grace

Publicly riling his biggest supporters – Westfield shareholders – is uncharacteristic of one of Australia’s most revered business heroes, and suggests he may be losing his touch.

Today I feel very sad. One of Australia’s great business heroes and icons, Frank Lowy, has clearly stayed on as Westfield Group chairman too long.

I do not want to get into the grubby rights and wrongs of the latest split proposal, but the Frank Lowy I knew -- the man who made Westfield such a great company -- would never have turned on his supporters in such a public way.

I remember the 1960s, in the early days when Westfield was just getting started and Frank Lowy could see the enormous potential of shopping centre development in Australia. And then, with the help of his sons, Frank Lowy took the skills he developed in Australia around the world.

And he won again, and inspired many Australian business people to try their skills on the international stage. Those who backed Frank Lowy made a fortune, and Australian savers loved and trusted him.

Frank Lowy is 83. When you get older sometimes you can become less tolerant of opposing views. I think that may have happened to Frank. 

When Frank Lowy announced his latest Westfield reconstruction it was clear that there was significant opposition among Westfield Retail Trust shareholders. The Frank Lowy of old would have realised that this was a debate among people who were his strong supporters -- they had agreed to split Westfield Corporation into two partly because they trusted him.

The old Frank Lowy would have found a way to accommodate their views and, while it might not have been as good for Westfield Group, the Lowy magic would have prevailed.

Now Frank Lowy, to get his way, is threatening to attack Westfield Retail shareholders -- his great supporters. It is possible the whole affair could end up in the courts.

I am not going to predict the outcome. It is possible that fearful, opposing Westfield Retail shareholders will vote for a proposal they believe is unfair. Alternatively they may dig in.

But the hero status of Frank Lowy has been has been tarnished at the very time of his life when we should be celebrating his achievements and skills.

Whichever way the battle goes, the loser is Frank Lowy. And that’s not good for Australia because we need business heroes.

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