From humble beginnings in a delicatessen at Blacktown, surrounded by fields in Sydney's west, to vast malls in the world's most sought-after locations - Sir Frank Lowy knew how to build an empire, starting with one Australian store and building it into a billion-dollar enterprise.
After 60 years of overseeing the global expansion of the business as it's CEO, Lowy recently ended all ties with the retail behemoth he co-created. In late 2017, Lowy foresaw that the retail sector - rather than weathering the storm - was heading for a downturn, so he got out. The family sold the whole of their Westfield business to the French commercial real estate company Unibail-Rodamco in 2018 for $22 billion and, in late 2019, sold the remaining 4 per cent of the Scentre Group owned by the private Lowy Family Group.
'Devil's Playground' director Steven Cantor's new documentary 'What Will Become of Us' is a profile of the Australian real estate and shopping centre magnate on the cusp of these major moves. When we first meet him at the age of 87, Lowy is entertaining the merger with Unibail-Rodamco which is, as he puts it matter-of-factly, "in effect a takeover." It's the perfect time for the kind of stock-taking the film represents as he admits, "It's hard to imagine how I ended up here."
Lowy is joined by biographer/story consultant David Kushner and a camera crew for a contemplative road trip to the past, to places of "sadness and bad memories". Revisiting the sites of his childhood and young adulthood, 'What Will Become of Us' takes us on an journey with a man who wants for nothing but is keenly aware of the past and challenges of the future for himself and his family.
Born in Slovakia, Lowy experienced violent anti-Semitism with the approach of World War II. The family moved to Hungary, where he was a child living in Budapest when the Nazis invaded. He recalls watching his father cry as he prayed for his family's safety (the film's title refers to a question his father repeatedly posed to God). When Lowy was 14, his father went to a train station one morning and never returned (later on in the movie, Lowy finally finds out what happened to him).
After fleeing Nazi-occupied Hungary, Lowy and his family went their separate ways. He would become a passenger on an illegal refugee ship to Palestine and spend six months interned in Cyprus. He fought in an Israeli commando unit in 1948. His sister married a lawyer in Australia, where his mother and brother eventually moved. Lowy later joined them in Australia in 1952, when he began his life as a business mogul in Sydney. "All that was missing was my father," he says.
Lowy started off as a delivery boy. He saved up enough money to eventually buy a deli and a coffee shop, which he sold and used the money to buy real estate. His real estate dealings evolved into the shopping mall business that he is known for today. In 1960, Lowy co-founded Westfield with John Saunders, who sold his interest in the company to Lowy years later. He opened Westfield Plaza in the Sydney suburb of Blacktown. It was "west" because of its location in Sydney, and "field" due to the farmland it was built on. Westfields then multiplied across Australia - first as suburban shopping malls, later as regional hubs and more recently as super-sized centres.
The impact of Lowy's decades of hardcore workaholism is felt - it can be assumed his family functions on a highly-efficient business-level as opposed to a more conventional family unit.
Director Steven Cantor's film pays as much attention to Lowy's personal life as it does to the business side of things. Lowy is married to Shirley, whom he first met at a Hanukkah party when he was 31 and she was 19. We see them seated close together at a corner of the dinner table, sharing what appears to be an average conversation between a couple who have spent over six decades together. Sadly, Shirley suffers from Alzheimer's, Lowy mentioning "We have a great marriage, only it's a bit one-sided."
The documentary doesn't delve too deeply into the relationships that he has with adult sons Peter and Steven (the co-CEOs of Westfield) and David, a principal of the Lowy Family Group. All three men are interviewed, but they don't reveal anything about the family dynamics involved in running the company. It is here that the impact of Lowy's decades of hardcore workaholism is felt - it can be assumed his family functions as something akin to a highly-efficient business as opposed to a more conventional family unit.
'What Will Become of Us' is an emotional and absorbing story, told unhurriedly over 75 minutes, that works to humanise a billionaire. Lowy's story is a familiar one: a look at the impact of historical trauma on someone who has lived through it, experiences that no amount of money can compensate or repair. Australian audiences won't look at the familiar Westfield logo in the same light after watching this documentary.