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Obituary: Paul Reichmann, property developer who presided over the transformation of Canary Wharf

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As one of the creators of Canary Wharf, Paul Reichmann, who has died at the age of 83, employed ambition and vision to transform London’s docklands from a largely neglected weed-strewn district into a centre of international finance.

The paradox is that he was a personally modest man who, despite his reticent personality, gained immense wealth by developing ostentatious signature buildings in London, New York, Toronto, Mexico city and elsewhere.

“Do they have to be quite so tall?” Prince Charles asked plaintively when shown the plans for the docklands skyscrapers. The answer was to be yes, for Reichmann relished above all structures that soared to the skies.

He suffered a major reversal when he lost control of Canary Wharf and lost much, though by no means all, of his fortune. But he retained the spirit and drive to make a partial recovery in later life.

Despite accumulating billions – his family was once ranked as the seventh richest in the world – he was forever restless in seeking out the most formidable challenges.

“My ambitions grew in terms of the size and scope and creativity of the projects,” he once said. “There is an enjoyment in being able to do something that others consider difficult if not impossible.” But in the end the Canary Wharf development was to prove a challenge too far, since what he conceived as his crown jewel turned out to be his greatest failure.

Born in 1930, Paul Reichmann was a member of an Orthodox Jewish family which fled from Vienna, only just escaping the clutches of the Nazis, though many relatives died in concentration camps. His father originally came from a small town in Hungary.

The family took refuge in Paris, then Morocco and, after the Second World War, moved to Canada. Paul, who was devout throughout his life, studied in Israel and worked for a Jewish educational charity in Casablanca. In Canada he joined his four brothers in a flooring business.

The Reichmanns then moved into property development where Paul, a natural entrepreneur, excelled. In 1969, the family won a major contract to build a large office tower in Toronto, and three years later constructed two more tall office buildings.

By 1977 they had prospered so much that they were able to purchase a portfolio of skyscrapers in the Wall Street area at a time when New York was in the doldrums and land was cheap. By the mid-1980s they had become major players in the city’s property market.

By 1990 he and his brothers, Albert, Edward, Louis and Ralph, were at the head of a truly international concern, The New York Times reporting that they held around eight per cent of the city’s commercial office space. This was more than twice as much as their closest rival, the Rockefellers.

Reichmann companies owned 40 major office buildings in many parts of the world, with personal assets of an estimated $20bn. The family’s success was such that banks readily lent them money, having huge faith in Paul’s judgement, which was regarded as exceptional.

He was known for taking risks, often launching projects in areas which other developers deemed unsuitable or too remote from existing business districts. An example of this was his decision to build New York’s World Financial Center on a site from which others shied away. Most of his investments paid off handsomely, increasing his reputation as a tycoon who brilliantly blended shrewdness with audacity.

The transformation of Canary Wharf was an instance of his disposition to think not just big but mega, since he envisaged it as exporting Wall Street to east London. The project started well enough, but suffered from transport difficulties: Margaret Thatcher was said to have promised that a London Underground service would be extended to Docklands, but this took years to materialise. The main problem which overwhelmed Reichmann, however, was the severe recession of the early 1990s.

The Docklands venture was itself too big to fail, but the international slump forced his empire into bankruptcy with debts of $20bn. The Reichmann family, it was said, was down to its last hundred million.

He acknowledged that the bankruptcy had been caused by hubris, having become used to taking so many risks which had paid off so well.

He was to say: “The fact that I had never been wrong created character flaws that caused me to make mistakes.”

But he was never a quitter, years later regaining partial control of Canary Wharf for some years, and re-building the family fortunes so that they once again went soaring into the billions.

The family donated an estimated $50m a year to synagogues, hospitals and educational establishments all over the world. It was their practice to close their construction sites on the Jewish Sabbath and Jewish religious holidays, as well as Christian ones.

Paul Reichmann’s career incorporated not only making money but also erecting skyline-altering landmark structures in great cities. While he could never be described as personally flamboyant – he dressed soberly, generally avoided publicity and rarely gave interviews – his buildings were often highly conspicuous.

In one of his rare public pronouncements, he left the impression that what drove him and his brothers was as much enthusiasm and a sense of achievement as the accumulation of wealth.

“None of us is really anxious to become bigger,” he said. “We never do anything for the sake of being bigger, or of wanting more control. You ask, ‘What is it for?’

“There is a sense of challenge, the challenge in doing something meaningful. In the end, though, it is an addiction.”

He attributed his long life to staying active and creative.

Paul Reichmann, property developer: born 27 September 1930; married Lea Feldman (two sons, three daughters); died 25 October 2013.