The traditional AGM fight between Westfield boss Frank Lowy and Crikey failed to materialise this week because the Mayne Man failed to get Neal Woolrich’s proxy on in time. But that doesn’t stop us from bagging the colourful shopping centre billionaire anyway.
Alas, the Mayne Man’s worst fears were unfounded, with absence of a proxy seeing me enter as a lowly “visitor” and yet again denied access to the microphone. I put up a Hail Mary with my old mate John from Computerserve at the Proxy Registration desk and asked “I can’t have Stephen Mayne’s proxy, can I? He won’t be here today.” No chance!
I love a good sheissin stir as much as the next bloke and Frank seemed like a pretty combustible target based on previous years. But, alas, there was to be no crack in his demeanour this year and just sombre delivery in his fractured English that comes straight from a lovably politically incorrect seventies English sitcom.
As always, there were plenty of issues with Westfield. Yes, they have recorded there 41st year of consecutive profit growth a remarkable achievement and a mantra which the company repeats with religious fervour.
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But there are plenty of things we would have loved to have grilled Frank about. How about these for starters:
* The company has just managed to get approval for a controversial shopping centre development on the Gold Coast which had been the subject of much to-ing and fro-ing for the best part of six years. The words “property development” and “Gold Coast” should automatically set alarm bells ringing, and there were plenty of things amiss in this one. For instance, why did the local member of Queensland Parliament put through a bill to fast-track the development when there had been so much community and development authority opposition? Westfield were lucky to have such a close friend in Robert Poole, the Honourable Member for Gaven, who dedicated about half of his maiden speech to Parliament arguing in favour of this development!
* On a completely unrelated matter, Paul Keating mused last year that property developers should be forbidden from making political donations. We’d love to know how much Westfield kicked in to stimulate the political process in various state elections over the last year and the big one last week.
* Speaking of friends in high places, we wonder if Peter Lowy thinks it was money well-spent to put on a party in honour of Al Gore for 400 pollies, staffers, media freeloaders and Aussie expats during the Democratic Convention? Too bad Peter backed the wrong pony there, but at least he had the presence to take an each way bet and sling some cash the Republicans’ way. All part of facilitating the democratic process, no doubt.
* Westfield America Trust tried to mop up the minority shareholders in Westfield America Inc during the year, but were opposed by a few dissident shareholders who launched a class against the company. The class actions alleged that the amounts to be received by the minority shareholders did not reflect the value of the assets and future prospects of Westfield America Inc. Just how much did that tete a tete set Australia’s leading property developer back? Not much apparently, as the Annual Report notes that “The Group believes that neither the settlement nor the litigation will have a material effect on its business”. Good to see Westfield making friends with the Yanks!
* Of course, Westfield has suffered from the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, having just negotiated a 99 year lease of the buildings’ retail space. Frank assured shareholders at the AGM that they were fully covered and had in fact received their first insurance cheque, but their insurers seem to have a different idea. Westfield’s insurers don’t appear to be rolling over on this one, but the picture that Frank painted at the AGM was distinctly “she’ll be right mate”.
* It wasn’t just the Packers and the Murdochs who wore dot.com egg all over their faces during the year. Westfield’s plans for a “virtual Westfield shoppingtown” were shelved during the year, but you wouldn’t know from skimming through the accounts. In fact, you wouldn’t know if you went through the accounts with a fine-toothed comb, because it ain’t there. We’d love to know how much this dalliance cost the company, what the future is for online retailing and what part Westfield plans to play in it.
* If there is one thing this correspondent hates more than crass shopping centres filled with bland suburban families in search of a bargain (that sort of conceit must make me one of Howard’s despised “elites”), it’s crass shopping centres filled with bland suburban families in search of a bargain while dad assumes the position of slot jockey. During the year, Westfield tried to gouge their dear customers that little bit extra by applying for pokie licenses in their Sydney Chatswood and Burwood centres. That would just make Westfield the ultimate shopping experience save a few bucks at Target and then blow it on the one-armed bandits.
* Westfield’s admirable, ambitious overseas expansion hasn’t come cheap during the year they shelled out over $2 million to advisers in connection with their overseas investments. Given that there didn’t appear to be any overseas acquisitions finalised during the year (the WTC and Rodamco transactions were completed after year-end), this seems a bit high. Perhaps in next year’s accounts the merchant bankers’, legal and accounting advisers’ fees will flow through big-time.
* It wouldn’t be a Crikey article on Westfield without a reference to the Lowys’ obscene salaries. Yes, they do a great job in running a profitable business, but so do the Packers and they don’t draw a salary from PBL. This year, Frank had to get by on a mere $9.9 million, son Peter did it tough on US$1.6 million, and the pauper of the family, Stephen, had to sing for his bread and dripping after getting only $2.1 million.
Granted, Westfield cannot be faulted on their financial performance, but there are a lot of smells emanating from this company, not all of which are pleasant.
And if this seems like an unusually succinct write-up, that’s because it was an unusually brief AGM 25 minutes all told! Not one question on the accounts, not one dissenting voice in the election of directors, including Fairfax’s David Gonski.
Frank will be glad that Mrs Crikey is not being so generous with the leave passes these days and that the return flight with Qantas that Mr Crikey inquired about on Wednesday night would have set the business back a further $468.
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