MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Frank Lowy is handing over control of Australian shopping mall giant Westfield Group <WDC.AX> to two of his sons, marking the start of a new era for the company the Czech-born Jewish refugee founded 52 years ago.
"This is as smooth a transition as you would have expected.
While the changing of the guard at Westfield was no surprise, investors say it is not clear how the two brothers will handle the joint role as chief executives and how the company's standing will change.
Westfield shares slipped 1.24 percent to their lowest level in almost two months, underperforming the broader market <.AXJO>, which fell 0.8 percent.
"I'd be surprised if there's any major changes in direction because both Steven and Peter have had very senior management roles in the company already," said Richard Morris, investment manager at Constellation Capital Management, which does not own shares in Westfield.
"Publicly they've always been of a like mind as to the direction of the company."
Westfield opened its first shopping center in 1959, building Australia's first American-style mall in the gritty Sydney suburb of Blacktown seven years after Frank Lowy arrived in Australia from Hungary with one suitcase.
His company has since grown into the world's biggest shopping mall landlord by market value, with 119 centers in Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the United States, and made Lowy Australia's fourth-richest man.
Lowy's father was beaten to death in 1944 at the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz, after being dragged off at a Budapest train station where he was trying to get tickets for his wife and four children to escape Hungary after the Nazi invasion.
Lowy only found out what happened to his father by accident nearly 50 years later and only last year came out in public with the story of how he had hidden the trauma from his family.
"The sense of loss was so great, it still traumatizes me now," Lowy said in an interview with The Australian newspaper.
Lowy and his mother went to a ghetto in Hungary a month after his father disappeared, while a brother and sister hid separately and his eldest brother was in a labor camp with the Hungarian army.
"The human being is very resourceful. When you fight for survival, you don't think much, you just do. If you think too much, you just sink," Lowy said in the interview.
NEXT STOP, CHINA?
Westfield is known for having strong pull with local councils which has helped it secure good sites for its shopping malls in Australia, to the disadvantage of its rivals. That could change with the company's patriarch stepping back.
"Frank moves in powerful circles. The question is can Westfield continue to get access to influential business circles to the same extent. That's the question mark," said Parsons at Resolution Capital.
Westfield recently spun off half its Australian and New Zealand mall assets into a separately listed property trust, Westfield Retail Trust <WRT.AX>, positioning Westfield Group as a growth stock with mall development income and offshore risk.
The company has flagged it is looking at further international expansion, sparking talk that it is looking to make a long-awaited move into China.
"The obvious places are continental Europe and China. They would be the markets that I would assume that they would be looking most closely at."
Frank Lowy has not had much direct contact with major shareholders for many years, leaving Steven and Peter Lowy to face investors while he spent more time on his interests in soccer and public policy.
Lowy, head of Football Federation Australia, was the leader of Australia's failed bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
Lowy's third son, David, will be stepping down from the board of Westfield. His focus has increasingly been on the family's private businesses.
(Editing by Ed Davies)