Obituary: Paul Reichmann, property tycoon

Born: 27 September, 1930, in Vienna. Died: 25 October, 2013, in Toronto, aged 83

Paul Reichmann: Visionary property tycoon behind Londons Canary Wharf. Picture: AP
Paul Reichmann: Visionary property tycoon behind Londons Canary Wharf. Picture: AP

When the London docks were no longer the hub of international trade there was much debate as to what should be done with such a vast area. It was Paul Reichmann’s visionary commercial acumen that developed Canary Wharf, with its searing skyscrapers, vast walkways, plethora of shops and acres of office space. In New York Reichmann developed the World Financial Center in Lower Manhattan.

He was an intensely private man, a devout and orthodox Jew who seldom gave interviews. But his vision to renovate a wasteland of London faced many problems. Reichmann’s tenacity to see the project through was typical of this most resolute of man.

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Paul Moshe Reichmann was one of five brothers whose father had made a fortune distributing eggs in Europe. The family led a nomadic existence – mostly moving to avoid the Nazis – and after Vienna they lived in Paris and then, for the rest of the war, in Morocco. His mother organised food parcels for the prisoners of concentration camps and helped Jewish refugees after the war.

From his youth Reichmann was a serious student of Jewish culture and attended several Jewish seminaries. He studied education in Gateshead but his sharp brain marked Reichmann out as a natural businessman. He joined the family bank and was soon the leading entrepreneur – notably acquiring a large and valuable stake in the equity of Gulf Canada Oil.

Reichmann was largely responsible for the rapid growth in the family’s Toronto-based property company, Olympia & York. It was founded in 1964 and soon made its mark internationally – by developing Toronto’s 72-storey First Canadian Place.

By buying judiciously, Reichmann became one of the largest property owners in Manhattan – outstripping the equally ambitious Donald Trump – and by the late 1970s he had developed the World Financial Center on Lower Manhattan. The investments in New York proved to be shrewd: the firm paid $330m for eight New York City buildings which within years were valued at $3bn.

In the mid-1980s Reichmann viewed the vast area to the east of the City of London as a potential site for commercial and private development. Many regarded the project as foolhardy – the Square Mile was an area hide-bound by its traditions and financial firms would be loath to move.

But Reichmann was confident of his vast plans and believed the Thatcher government would build the Jubilee Line to enhance its attraction. That did not open until 1999.

In 1987 the bulldozers moved in to reconstruct the Docklands. Reichmann’s business foresight deserted him and within three years his plans were turned upside down by the property, financial and stock market slump. Although some of Canary Wharf had been completed, the debts mounted savagely. Reichmann borrowed against his North American assets but the debts reached $20bn in 1992 and the bankers foreclosed on Canary Wharf. Olympia & York was placed in administration and the company filed for bankruptcy. Canary Wharf was repossessed by a German bank.

The family’s fortune was decimated but although the humiliation was considerable Reichmann still had personal resources and he remained determined to complete on Canary Wharf. In 1995 he bought, with a group of financiers (including George Soros) the site back for £800m.

The development was completed in 1998 and Canary Wharf was floated on the Stock Exchange in 1999 for £2.5bn. Reichmann stepped down as chairman and in 2004 the company returned to being private. But the Canary Wharf tower with its flashing red light and 60 storeys high became a commercial and viable development. It was also the tallest building in Britain.

Reichmann’s vision of building a financial centre on what was formerly the Isle of Dogs seemed to many a dream too far. Although the project had some tortuous moments Reichmann built office space that could accommodate the new technologies of the age – which the dark Dickensian offices of the City could not have done. ­

The centrepiece of the sprawling Canary Wharf development is Number One Canada Square – a veritable legacy to Paul Reichmann.

Reichmann never retired and remained active developing property worldwide – he opened a 55-storey skyscraper in Mexico City in 2003.

For Reichmann religion and commerce were intertwined. The firm, for example, never operated on the Jewish Sabbath and paid overtime for Sunday work. He supported many Jewish and medical charities and was an avid collector of ancient Jewish texts.

Reichmann was a quiet, rather solitary figure. Reflecting on the financial problems of Canary Wharf in 1997 he blamed his own overconfidence. “The fact that I had never been wrong created character flaws that caused me to make mistakes.”

Reichmann is survived by his wife Lea, to whom he had got engaged when he was 15, and their two sons and three daughters.