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“Trust your instinct” Hamish Douglass in conversation with Sir Frank Lowy AC

Sir Frank Lowy AC is the former long-time Chairman of Westfield Corporation, founder of the Lowy Institute, and chairman of the Institute for National Securities Studies, relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. This is an extract of Sir Frank's recent chat with Magellan's Hamish Douglass.

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Hamish Douglass (HD): Frank, firstly, to start, would you be able to provide our listeners with a brief background on your childhood and education and ultimately your journey to Australia?

Sir Frank Lowy AC (FL): Well, Hamish, the beginning of my life was very turbulent. I was born in Czechoslovakia in 1930. Eight years later, it became Hungary, so I was a Hungarian. Antisemitism was very difficult for us to cope with. In the town where I was born, there were about 5,000 inhabitants and 150 Jews. Business was difficult. The anti-Semitic laws prohibited us from owning businesses. So my father in 1942 decided to move to Budapest where we were able to mingle with the world without it being known that we were Jewish.

Life was quite good in spite of the war already raging. It all came to a sudden stop on the 19th of March 1944. The German army occupied Hungary and life turned terribly worse. I lost my father the next day because they caught him in the street, and I haven't heard from him since.

I was left with my mother, sister and brother. I went into hiding and I stayed with my mother. It's a very long story, it was a very difficult time. But by the end of 1944-45, the war was over for us and we went back to Czechoslovakia, which then became Slovakia. So you can imagine how many nationalities I had to cope with.

Only 35 Jews came back [to my small town]. So it was a very sad place and it was mainly males, and I had no company there. I didn't really want to go back to school. I decided to emigrate to Palestine at the end of 1946. I joined the Israeli army in 1947, fought in the Arab-Israeli war, and afterwards I got a reasonably good job. I learnt accountancy at night, got a job in the bank and I enjoyed myself very much. But I was very much longing to be with my mother and sister and brother who survived the war, and they, meanwhile, [had] emigrated to Australia. So being in Israel, then for about six years, I decided to join them, they sent me the air tickets and I arrived in Australia in early 1952.

HD: Frank, I don't think many listeners unless they are probably over 70 or 80 have any appreciation of that background. Many of us complain about issues that are going on in the world, but we have lived our lives in very peaceful times. You grew up in a horrendous period of antisemitism, and loss your father at a young age. Family is so important at the end of the day. What are the lessons you learnt from your parents that you're trying to pass on to your three sons and your grandchildren?

FL: Both my parents, together and individually taught me to be charitable, to share. And I do remember it well, but once we discussed it and my mother said: "If you have a little, give a little, if you have a lot, give a lot".

That became my ethos in life. Of course, the difficulties during the war also taught me to be vigilant, to be paranoid. And it taught me a lesson about if you want to succeed or survive, you need to be curious to see what's going on. Where are the opportunities for various activities of your life? And I think it did give me some grounding to my life later on.

HD: And maybe that's a good segue from family into business. In 1955 you and your business partner John Saunders started out as partners in a delicatessen in Sydney. And how did the partnership in a small delicatessen lead to the establishment of Westfield Building Corporation? That seems quite a leap.

FL: Yes, it is something I wonder myself, but looking back is a lot easier than looking forward. Most of the decisions that we took were strategic business decisions. We could have opened the delicatessen in Bondi junction or in the city, but we had two opportunities: one in Bondi Junction and one in Blacktown. John lived in North Sydney and I lived in Dover Heights, and we chose Blacktown not because it was close and convenient, but because the opportunity in Blacktown seemed to be a lot better than in Bondi junction.

Immigrants were pouring into Sydney, and most of them went to the western suburbs. So we decided to go there and didn't mind the travel of an hour each way.

We left about 7:00am from Sydney, opened the shop at 9:00am and then came home 7:00pm or 8:00pm at night. But as I said, looking back, it was a strategic decision to go to Blacktown and why? The shop we rented was opposite the railway station. One day it was quite afternoon and I walked in the street to look around, and I see about three shops are being built next door to our delicatessen. I told John “listen we could do that”. So we decided to try it.

But beforehand, we also opened a coffee shop next to our delicatessen, and it was the first or second espresso machine in Sydney. There were a lot of Italians living in the area, and the coffee shop was opened on Sunday. So we were working seven days a week. Shirley and I used to get up Sunday morning, take [my eldest] David to my mother, then go together to the shop.

So we built those few shops next to us. I think it was four shops, and it was very successful. We rented them and [finally] sold them. So that was our first real estate venture. On top of that, the landlord of ours in Blacktown had four or five acres behind the shops next to the post office.

We thought, well why can't we try to buy it and build some more shops? We’d already heard about shopping centres in the United States, so we bought some architectural magazines, and we learnt a little bit about how to. We bought that piece of land, hired an architect, and created a small shopping centre of 12 shops, a small department store and parking for 30 cars. It was an unbelievable success. Meanwhile, we sold the delicatessen and the coffee shop, which gave us the capital to carry on business. We opened that shopping centre on the 9th of August 1959.

HD: It's incredible that you chose Blacktown because of immigration there. And then when you were in a delicatessen, you expanded into real estate and you just saw an opportunity. So it wasn't like you went to Blacktown to build a shopping centre. The plans developed as you could see things as they were happening.

FL: Practically my whole business career was instinctive; I have an instinct and then I do the research about my instinct. And that's the way I made decisions.

I'm very curious and, as you know, I'm paranoid. But at the same time, I'm an optimist because you cannot be a real estate developer without being an optimist. The paranoia must follow you, and that's how I think I can attribute my success; to those feelings and then the people I choose to be with.

When we sold out of Westfield there were people who used to work for me, started as young people and 30 years later there were still there. Of course, I was very lucky to have three sons like David, Peter and Steven, who are smart, hard workers, and also I think there is an optimism in the four of us and also the paranoia. I can't quite describe it to you, but the mixture of those does wonders.

HD: Frank, you once said to me, "always play the ball and not the man". But how do you avoid playing the man when you're playing tough to get outcomes in business?

FL: I think what I used to do is decide by myself where I want to be in those negotiations. And I just didn't give in. I kept my point. Occasionally in business, you have to give in, to give the other guys some victory also. But I decided where I wanted to be at the end of the negotiation, and once I got there, there was nowhere to go.

The opponent must have realised this, because you need the buyer and the seller all the time. Somebody has to be definite. I was definite because I believed that's the way to go. I don't like these negotiations that drag on for a long time. I lose patience and I know where I want to be. So why play around? Just state your position and stick to it.

HD: Frank, I'm going to move on from Westfield a little bit, and I haven't asked you this question before, so I'm incredibly interested in the answer. You have had a great privilege of meeting so many people around the world in your life, who has impressed you the most and why?

FL: You'll be embarrassed by my answer. One of the men is you, because I felt when I talked to you like I was talking to myself. And of course, it's enjoyable to meet a smart person. And every time we were together, we learnt from each other. Life is about learning. Not standing still, and I learnt a lot from you, and I'm very pleased to hear from you, from time to time, how much you enjoy the interaction between you and I.

There are also a lot of other people that influenced me. I [also] enjoyed working with my sons. We get on well, it is not a honeymoon that we agree all the time with each other. We respect each other. So when we debate, at the end there is a consensus. There is no better way to make decisions.

HD: We have fascinating conversations, Frank, and I'm always amazed. You've just turned 91, so how do you retain so much energy and such a positive outlook? You’re still moving with a lot of energy. You still move around the world. COVID probably slowed you down a little bit, but how do you retain a positive outlook and energy in life?

FL: Well, I think I am very interested in what I do, which I probably inherited from my mother and father. I am very curious. I don't want to stop because I'm 91. I'll stop when I have to. I enjoy what I do. I enjoy my activities in the Lowy Institute and the [Institute for National Securities Studies] that I chair here in Israel for the Middle East.

Life is very interesting if you are interested, and I don't spare myself energy. What I inherited, and the energy I have, is a combination of luck, interest, and curiosity. I get up in the morning around 6:00, and I go to the gym. I spend a couple of hours there before I start [the day]. You know, it's a lesson that you get energy in the gym. I might do some swimming and come up for breakfast.

HD: And Frank, one very last question to end here. Every time we get together, I must admit, I come back more optimistic and more energised than I was before we get together. A lot of people are very pessimistic about the world at the moment. What are you most optimistic about?

FL: I think that life rolls. It doesn't stop. I failed to bring the 2022 [Soccer] World Cup to Australia. I was miserable. Of course, I was cheated out of the position, but I came back from Zurich, and I had to face the music. The journalists were waiting for me, and I accepted the great responsibility and I said, “You know what, fellows? The Sun will rise tomorrow”, and I finished my interview that way.

The Sun did rise. So what am I optimistic about? The same thing. It's a bit of a cliché, but of course, the Sun will rise tomorrow.

HD: Well, Frank, I couldn't think of a better note to end on. I hope to see you back at home in Australia and I know Tel Aviv and New York is also home. But Australia is a very important part of your life. You've got a lot of friends here, you're also an incredible businessman, but most importantly, a friend and a mentor and somebody who I admire and I'm very lucky to call a friend. So thank you very much, Frank.

FL: Okay, thank you very much, Hamish, and I hope to see you soon.

HD: Likewise.

 

Hamish Douglass is Co-Founder, Chairman and Chief Investment Officer of Magellan Asset Management, a sponsor of Firstlinks. You can listen to the full interview here.

For more articles and papers from Magellan, please click here.

 

8 Comments
Steve
November 07, 2021

It is interesting that Frank Lowy has left Australia & is now living in Israel. Looks like he is starting a trend, as a growing number of families are also deciding to permanently leave Australia at the moment. Maybe they are trusting their instinct.

Marjorie J
November 07, 2021

Great interview, Hamish.
I was lucky enough to hear Sir Frank speak at a Melbourne business lunch hosted by AFR c 2016 and will never forget his advice - success is often a matter of timing. Thank you both. Fascinating and inspiring.

Jonathan Rado
November 07, 2021

Great article! What a amazing legend is Sir Frank.

Chris Darby
November 07, 2021

There are some out there who need to heed the advice of the Lowy family, If you have a little, give a little, if you have a lot, give a lot, it would make this world a better place.
Inspirational Sir Frank!

Ian Yates
November 05, 2021

I wish to thank Sir Frank Lowrey for his contribution to the world and his demonstration of turning extreme adversity into success not just in terms of wealth. In these days there a very few business people whom I respect and admire. Sir Frank is a person whom has led a life of belief and charity. Thank you Best Regards Ian Yates

Steve Gomory
November 07, 2021

A pity as the Westfield Shopping Centres Landlord, more understanding wasn't shown to the small business tenants.

Kevin
November 07, 2021

I'll really back you in that Ian.A true legend.
For the 40th anniversary of the company they sent the shareholders a book in 2000. Copy of the original IPO leaflet.Photos of old Sydney and the old shops.
The struggle to raise money.How hard it was to talk the bank into lending him £75000 to start the first shopping centre in Blacktown,how the company grew.
The returns over the years from 1960 to 2000.I think the original £500 if spent then had grown to around $ 3.4 million or so with dividends reinvested.I'll have to dig the book out.From memory the CAGR averaged around 26% or so for the full period .Excellent book.

Tony Mineo
November 07, 2021

Fantastic article with very wise words.

 

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