Justin Lynch - Low-flying master of the mall game

By Anne Gibson

As a boy, Justin Lynch got a hands-on education in the retail sector. After dinner, he and his 11 other family members would sit around the dining table, packaging goods to sell in shops.

Lynch, one of five brothers and five sisters, grew up in a "great big rambling house" in Blakehurst, Sydney.

His father, Peter, was a successful pharmacist and pharmaceutical manufacturer, so lots of painkillers, fluoride tablets and anti-nausea medication had to be packaged up in the evenings, ready for the next day's brisk retail trade.

"Funny, I haven't thought about that for years," said Lynch in a meeting room at mall operator Westfield's unspectacular national offices in Newmarket.

"We bagged pills, stapled them into packets and folded the packages. Dad was instrumental in getting fluoride added to the Sydney water supply - at the expense of his own business because he made and sold fluoride tablets. But he wanted it added to the water because it was the right thing to do. He would be embarrassed by my talking about it. It was one of his achievements."

Lynch is Westfield NZ's deputy director, second to director John Widdup, who has returned to Australia. Lynch has effectively been running Westfield for months and says he is happy he has not been given the top title.

High-profile Widdup was prominent here, appearing in society pages and making a string of announcements. Lynch flies much lower on the business radar.

"Westfield may be the biggest ratepayer in Newmarket but the senior management team has a very, very low profile," said Cameron Brewer, Newmarket Business Association's general manager.

"Having said that, Westfield's local reputation has improved 100-fold over the past five years, after they dropped plans for the mega-mall at the bottom of Remuera Rd. I think John and Justin have done an excellent job restoring and building Westfield's reputation in the community."

Since Widdup's return to Sydney, Westfield's media profile has shrunk but Lynch says the business is where it needs to be - although he does agree he has a somewhat reserved style.

Lynch runs a business which owns a portfolio of probably the country's best malls. Not only does Westfield dominate its retail catchments, but it has enormous expansion capacity on many sites. Work started at the new $210 million Albany mall only a few months ago, but Lynch's team is already planning a big expansion, well before opening this year.

Australian-based ASX-listed Westfield Group owns 11 shopping centres in New Zealand worth $2.8 billion, from Christchurch to Auckland. Newmarket's Nuffield St precinct and the Albany centre are part of the empire.

Almost $3 billion in assets and 1500 shops make it by far the country's biggest mall owner, way ahead of rival Kiwi Income Property Trust. It has 10 retail properties worth $900 million - Kiwi's biggest is the $300 million-plus Sylvia Park at Mt Wellington, followed by Papanui's $229 million Northlands mall in Christchurch.

Lynch not only has far more malls than Kiwi, but he has a fatter development chequebook. Westfield has already spent $700 million here this decade but plans a further $600 million in the next five years.

Lynch said he hankered after a career in property because he finds development a creative task - the built environment as art. "I love to create. When I'm asked what drives me, it's that sense of creating spaces for people and venues that are tangible symbols. I enjoy going back to visit projects I've been involved with."

After graduating with a master's degree, his first job was with Sydney's Concrete Construction, where he worked in construction and site management. A 36-level office tower in the CBD and a Japanese hotel at King's Cross were two projects he recalled working on.

Then he shifted to builder and investor Lend Lease, stationed in its construction division for three years, where he was project manager of retail developments including refurbishment of the MLC Centre and an upgrade of the historic Theatre Royal Sydney in King St.

A term with Prudential Assurance - later taken over by Colonial First State - saw Lynch involved in developing Christchurch's Riccarton mall. He also worked on large shopping centre developments in Brisbane and moved to Westfield in 2000, initially as a development manager. In July 2004, he shifted to Auckland to head the project division and was closely involved with the expansion of Queensgate in Lower Hutt.

Of the many projects he has worked on in seven years at Westfield, he is most proud of Queensgate. But Riccarton also features prominently.

"We opened Riccarton on April 7, 1995, and Westfield opened the Hoyts cinemas there on April 7, 2005. Exactly 10 years later - to the day. I don't know what to make of that."

Nuffield St brought strong feedback and praise, he said.

As for the future, Lynch is bullish about New Zealand, saying we need more shops, despite Reserve Bank governor Alan Bollard's pleas for us to stop spending and start saving.

"We've been a great stimulus for the economy," he said, citing the 2600 full-time equivalent retail workers at Westfield centres and the 4300 full-time equivalent construction jobs expanding and developing the properties.

"Last month, we celebrated 10 years in New Zealand and I'm planning a celebration later this year."

Westfield is focused on completing its ambitious Albany project and starting Newmarket's 277 expansion, a job given consent last year and which critics say is being delayed by Westfield's inability to force SkyCity Cinemas' shift from above the pool in Newmarket up to the suburb's southern end. Cinemas have been a crucial component of every Westfield mall expansion.

Lynch's response is that the team is still working on the project.

The Newmarket project will see Westfield build about 200 shops. It will also incorporate the languishing Levene/Farmers land on a block opposite 277, at 309 Broadway. How it connects the two street blocks is of interest to other Broadway retailers.

Resource consent was granted for Westfield to expand Riccarton last year and a string of shops will be built on level two, now used for parking.

Then Westfield will shift its gaze back to Auckland and St Lukes, which suffers from retailing capacity constraints and a dearth of parking.

St Lukes and Riccarton are by far Westfield's most successful malls, each pulling about 6 million shopper visits annually. Lynch is keen for Westfield to develop land around the fringes of St Lukes - and perhaps even incorporate the local community library.

But land must be rezoned to allow the expansion and he says Westfield is in discussions with local authorities.

So, does Mr Westfield/Lynch love to shop? He smiles, but issues a vehement "no", saying he is more than happy to leave that to "the girls" in his family.

Justin Lynch

Deputy director, Westfield (NZ)

Age: 42.
Lives: Remuera, retains a home in Sydney's Lane Cove.
Family: Wife Cate, children Olivia, Ben, Cordelia and Xavier.
Education: Property degree specialising in construction, University of New South Wales, Sydney. Masters in business administration, Macquarie University, Sydney.
Former dream job: Boatbuilder.
First job: Concrete Construction, Sydney.
Recreation: Gym and golf.

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