Asking questions of the legendary Frank Lowy

By Stephen Mayne
January 14, 2008

The 1998 Westfield Holdings AGM was a doozy and this appeared in The Daily Telegraph on November 13, 1998.

Well, of all the annual meetings I've attended for this series from the perspective of an active investor, Westfield Holdings boss Frank Lowy was certainly the most assertive chairman.

The meeting opened relatively calmly with a range of shareholders asking questions, including residents opposing Westfield's Bondi Junction redevelopment.

Australia's second richest man responded curtly and politely to my first two questions about the value of the group's investment in the Intencity hi-tech theme park joint venture with Kerry Packer's Nine Network and Village Roadshow and the future of Westfield Holdings' 16 per cent stake in Westfield America Trust.

Thereafter, the chairman made it clear he ran the meeting. My next question related to the Lowy family's long term commitment to Westfield Holdings given its recent sale of a 13 per cent stake for about $470 million and whether this sell down had contributed to the stock under-performing the All Ords so far this financial year, as the attached graph demonstrates.

I did point out that the last time Westfield under-performed the All Ords was way back in 1989-90 and that since then it had risen about 1800 per cent. Can't complain about that.

Anyway, the chairman obviously thought I was referring to July 1, 1997, not July 1, 1998 and suggested I "should have done my homework". "Last year the share price was $5.72 and today we are standing here at $7."

After clarifying the date, Mr Lowy responded: "Well, pick any day, why don't you pick tomorrow, maybe it will be different."

And different it is. Mr Lowy's 20 per cent plus profit forecast at the meeting sent shares in the shopping centre giant surging 31c to $7.31 yesterday.

Half way through the next question, Mr Lowy, 68, preempted it by saying: "No, I am not going to tell you when I am going to retire."

Sensing his darkening mood, I suggested it was "time to get back in my box". "Good, that's where you belong," he replied.

One shareholder then suggested non-executive directors were a touch overpaid in receiving more than $130,000 a year.

Mr Lowy gave a long answer, explaining that only $70,000 of this was directors fees and the rest superannuation. And for $70,000 he said shareholders were getting great value from Rob Ferguson, Carla Zampatti David Gonski, Dean Wills and incoming Fairfax chief executive, Professor Fred Hilmer.

On hearing this, I thought it fair and relevant to ask about the $361,440 Prof Hilmer's consulting firm Port Jackson Partners was paid in 1997-98. How did Westfield decide what was director's fees and what was extra consulting?

But before speaking, Mr Lowy said a previous meeting with managing director David Lowy gave me "all the answers"
and this series was a publicity seeking exercise.

The issues raised earlier were different. That private discussion mainly related to management and development fees Westfield Holdings gets from the associated Westfield Trust and Westfield America Trust.

These fees have driven the 18-fold increase in Westfield Holdings shares since 1990 - a better performance than Westfield Trust, in which the Lowys own no units, which has performed well, but only doubled.

When the question about Prof Hilmer's fees was finally put, the chairman responded: "I am not going to go through the detail again. We make a judgment how much he works and how much we charge for."

He then concluded it was "a lot of nonsense". After the meeting, we shook hands and Mr Lowy politely said it was the "double dipping" as a journalist and shareholder which he took exception too.

Seeing the decisiveness of the chairman's performance, I concluded it was better being with the Lowys than against them. I borrowed another $3000 yesterday afternoon to increase my stake from 325 shares - not the 50 as suggested by the chairman - to 750 and look forward to hearing of more profit rises next year.

Follow-up commentary on November 14

It wasn't until the third question that Frank Lowy emerged as the most combative chairman to be encounted as an active investor on the annual meeting circuit.

The man who is worth more than $2 billion and delivered 38 straight profit rises, took exception to a question about his family's long term commitment to Westfield and short term market underperformance and it was all down hill from there.

It seems that the richer they are, the shorter their AGMS and, in some cases, the less tolerant the controlling shareholder. Rupert Murdoch rattled through the News Corp annual meeting in 20 minutes without a peep from the floor, Kerry Packer's Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd meeting was all over in half an hour and Mr Lowy joked that he should be getting paid overtime when his meeting dragged on for one hour and 20 minutes.

Enduring a Telstra-style five hour meeting would be a new experience Australia's most successful businessmen.

Despite the umbrage Mr Lowy took to questions about non-executive director pay and residents opposing the proposed Bondi Junction shopping centre redevelopment, several sensitive issues were not raised.

After all, he is Australia's highest paid executive who earned about almost $6.5 million last year after getting a $500,000 pay rise.
Given the stellar performance of the stock, no-one is going to begrudge its driving force taking 6 per cent of profit in salary, but based on Mr Lowy's surprisingly abrupt and short answers, any shareholder who raised this issue would probably have received short shrift.