Philanthropist and real-estate industrialist, Paul Reichmann passed away on October 25, 2013. He was 83 years old.
Reichmann will be remembered as one of the greatest land developers in history – a man who transformed the skylines of Toronto, New York and London in a series of legendary and well-documented ventures.
His preoccupation with commercial real estate was rivaled only by his spiritual convictions; in fact, it was his achievements in Talmudic studies and family life that he was most proud. As a young man teaching Talmud in North Africa, Reichmann steered his students towards intellectual rather than commercial pursuits. However, in his own life, an unquenchable calling in the world of commerce would come to dominate his adulthood.
Reichmann was tall and soft-spoken. He dressed as modestly as he lived, in combinations of dark suits and ties with white shirts. Beneath his unpretentious exterior he was a master negotiator and financier, with exceptional business acumen and seemingly limitless gumption and tenacity.
Amassing immense wealth was never Reichmann’s end goal – it was a byproduct of his passion for his work. In fact, the Reichmann family actively shed wealth, year upon year, as large-scale donors, giving generously in the tens of millions to both non-denominational and Jewish medical facilities, as well as yeshivas and schools. Even though the family was, at its apex, one of the wealthiest in the world, Reichmann never moved from his upper-middle-class home in Toronto.
Reichmann’s business life was undeniably busy; even still, he prioritized time at home on the Jewish Sabbath and holidays, joining his wife Lea and their five children for temple services. This respect for religion extended to the family firm, Olympia & York Developments Ltd. (O&Y). The company closed its construction sites on the Jewish Sabbath, paid overtime for Sunday labor and for working on Jewish and Christian holidays.
Building an Empire
Reichmann was born in Vienna, Austria on September 27, 1930, the fifth of six children. His parents were orthodox Jews who, after uprooting twice – the first time to escape Nazi occupation and, the second time, to escape anti-Jewish persecution as a result of the Arab-Israeli War in 1956 – moved the family to their new home in North York, Toronto.
Paul, his father Samuel, and brothers Albert and Ralph started Olympia Tile in Toronto that same year, renaming it Olympia & York in 1958 when the company expanded into local real-estate development.
Olympia & York built nearly 100 buildings in Toronto over its first 15 years, the jewel of which was First Canadian Place. After winning the contract, it took O&Y three years of lobbying to iron out the deal. First Canadian Place was named after Canada’s first bank – the Bank of Montreal – and still houses the bank’s head office. Clad in white marble, First Canadian Place was the tallest bank tower in the world when it was completed in 1975.
Reichmann, who by this time was the business’s chief decision-maker, showed his audacious spirit on an epic scale when, in 1977, he won his firm the contract to develop a desolate site at New York’s Battery Park. The risk was enormous, but, in the end, the four mammoth towers that comprised the new World Financial Center effectively led to the relocation of the city’s financial district.
At their peak, the Reichmann family held about eight percent of New York’s commercial office space, more than twice as much as their closest rival, the Rockefellers. Their company, O&Y, was the world’s largest private real-estate company and they were the seventh wealthiest family in the world.
Then came the infamous Canary Wharf. In the 1980s, Reichmann won the rights to develop a dilapidated remote area in east London known as the Isle of Dogs, later renamed Canary Wharf. Like the Battery Park site in Manhattan, Canary Wharf was a huge gamble.
Two principal factors conspired against the Canary Wharf development project: the cyclical nature of real estate and a handshake deal with then British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who had promised O&Y that the city’s subway would be extended to the remote area in time for its completion. When the Canary Wharf site was completed in the early 1990s, Britain was in a recession and the subway was nowhere near completed. The office space at Canary Wharf remained empty, and O&Y was forced into bankruptcy in 1992.
Reichmann’s timing may have been off, but proof that his instincts were correct actualized years later. The subway extension was completed in 2000 and Canary Wharf became so popular that several more buildings were later added around the 50-story centerpiece building known as One Canada Square; and, as Reichmann envisioned, London’s financial district eventually relocated.
As a result of the bankruptcy the Reichmann family lost most of its wealth. Reichmann was humble enough to recognize his over-confidence and went about rebuilding the family fortune. It was not long before the family’s new company – Olympia & York Properties Corporation – was valued in the multibillions, which included a large stake in Canary Wharf. Reichmann retired in 2005.
Paul Reichmann took huge risks in his professional life. He thrived on finding a way to succeed where others had failed, or were too timid to venture. As a result, he reaped enormous rewards and suffered great losses. When he was up, he sought to climb higher; when he was down, he got up and began again.
“Paul Reichmann was an extraordinary man and an inspiration to me and many, many others. His foresight into how the world’s financial capitals would develop, both at home and abroad, was uncanny. He was generous and authentic, and we will not soon see his like again. He will be dearly missed.” – Samuel Friedmann
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