By ANNE GIBSON property editor

Australian-based shopping centre developer Westfield will spend $1.2 billion expanding its New Zealand portfolio as part of its aim to become the world's first global shopping centre owner and manager.

Westfield Trust managing director Stephen Lowy, who visited here yesterday from Sydney, said Westfield had initially budgeted on spending just $1 billion in New Zealand, but having spent about $200 million upgrading malls at Glenfield and Henderson, "the budget is still to spend a further $1 billion".

The expansion over five to seven years would take the number of New Zealand Westfield shops from 1000 to 2000, making Westfield one of the single largest investors in the New Zealand economy.

"We are not afraid of controversy," said Mr Lowy, referring to Westfield's controversial plans for Newmarket and its hostile takeover attempt on a Dutch shopping centre owner with United States shops.

Mr Lowy said Westfield wanted to become to shoppers what Coca-Cola was to drink and McDonald's was to food. Expansion in New Zealand was part of that plan, although future growth would be targeted at the United States and Europe.

Mr Lowy's New Zealand trip was scheduled for September, but was cancelled because of the World Trade Center attack.

In April, Westfield bought a 99-year lease on the shops in the World Trade Center from the New York Port Authority, but Mr Lowy said yesterday that Westfield was fully insured for the $US25 million to $US30 million ($59.68 million to $71.61 million) it had paid to date on the $US400 million investment, as well as for the subsequent loss of trade.

Westfield was started by Mr Lowy's father, Frank, and the late John Saunders. Frank Lowy's other sons, Peter and David, also hold senior roles in the company.

The Lowys are Australia's richest family, and Westfield is one of the world's largest shopping centre companies and the world's fourth largest property company.

It manages 87 shopping centres around the world worth around $A25 billion ($30.63 billion), most of which are owned fully or to 50 per cent by Westfield Trust and Westfield America Trust.

Westfield has 11 malls in New Zealand, 29 in Australia, 40 in the United States and seven in Britain and a forward workload of $A4.9 billion upgrading its centres in Australia, the United States and New Zealand.

For all its 41 years, Westfield has increased its profit, posting a 14 per cent rise in returns to $A169 million for the 12 months to June 30.

Mr Lowy said Westfield intended to build its controversial mall in Newmarket - and take on Two Double Seven across the road.