(Bloomberg) -- After spending more than half a century building a global shopping mall empire with properties stretching from London to San Francisco, Australian tycoon Frank Lowy is letting go of the business that made him a billionaire.
The 87-year-old co-founder of Westfield Corp. said he and his sons will focus on managing investments instead of running shopping centers after agreeing to sell the mall operator to Paris-based Unibail-Rodamco SE for A$21 billion ($15.8 billion) -- the biggest deal in real estate since 2013.
It’s the end of an era for Lowy, a Holocaust survivor who earned his fortune by opening malls across the world, beginning with one in western Sydney in 1959. His family’s decision to reduce exposure to shopping centers comes as the industry tries to reinvent itself to survive the surge in online retailing.
"It’s kind of bittersweet for me at the moment," Lowy said, via a webcast from London. "I’m not looking for too much time to spare, but the workload will be totally different, and it will encompass investing rather than managing."
His 9.5 percent stake in Westfield makes up about a quarter of Lowy’s $5.1 billion fortune, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Known for its vast, multi-level mega malls, Westfield operates the kind of retail outlets that are most likely to keep drawing consumers as a boom in web retailers like Amazon.com Inc. prompts smaller competitors to shut down. Unibail-Rodamco, an owner of malls, offices and convention centers, offered A$10.01 ($7.57) per share for Westfield, about 18 percent more than its closing price before the deal.
“Developing top-grade shopping centers is a very difficult thing to do, so M&A is a more realistic route to take,” said David Green-Morgan, a Singapore-based managing director at Real Capital Analytics Inc., a real estate research firm. “With Amazon’s deep penetration in Europe and the U.S., where the traditional retail sector has tried to adapt and evolve, the dominant shopping centers have become even more dominant.”
Westfield, which operates 35 malls in the U.S. and U.K., is the biggest private sector mall landlord in London and its U.S. shopping centers provide almost 70 percent of its $1.8 billion annual revenue.
Born in Slovakia (then Czechoslovakia), Lowy immigrated to Australia in 1952 and began investing in real estate three years later, using proceeds from a deli and coffee shop he co-owned to buy farmland.
His father, a traveling salesman, died in Auschwitz. At 22, Lowy followed his mother and sister to Australia, where he took a job working a grinding machine at a toolmaker. He later opened the deli in a Sydney suburb with another Holocaust survivor, John Saunders, who would go on to be his early partner in Westfield.
"It’s a lifetime, more than a lifetime, of work that I’ve put into this company," Lowy said. "It’s time from my personal point of view for me to move on."
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.