Irvine Sellar: Blue-sky thinker

He's the man behind the tower that has changed the face of London. But can he make it pay?

Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath offers perhaps the best panoramic view of London. Stand there on a clear day and you can see planes dipping over Battersea Power Station on their way to Heathrow in the west and the gleaming towers of the Docklands to the east. And in the middle stands 310m of controversy.

Until 1963, London's tallest building was the Sir Christopher Wren-designed St Paul's. On Thursday, the view of the cathedral was finally overwhelmed, at least in terms of the vista from Parliament Hill, by what is now Europe's tallest skyscraper – the Shard, which after more than 12 years of planning, designing and arguing, was finally declared open by its developer, Irvine Sellar.

Throughout the project, Sellar and the Shard's celebrated architect, Renzo Piano, have had to work hard to win over the sceptics. Pawing off a complaint from English Heritage and the Royal Parks Foundation that the giant wigwam of glass would cast both a literal and metaphoric shadow over St Paul's, Piano insisted that "when together, the two buildings will kiss each other". In an interview with The Independent two years ago, Sellar admitted that his architect had no time for London's most famous church and now, judging the view from Parliament Hill at least, it is a rather awkward embrace.

If Piano's poetry has been useful on occasions to wrong-foot the doubters, it has been left to Sellar to do the heavy lifting. Charged with the accusation that the building will miss its commercial targets, especially given the fact that none of the 600,000 square feet of office space has yet been filled – and this after he unknotted a deal with Transport for London, which had initially signed up – Sellar says his development firm is being "highly selective" about who it brings in. Two years ago, he insisted that "the market will come to us".

Despite the setbacks, and those who simply don't like it, in many ways the gleaming skyscraper represents a triumph over adversity. Plans were initially submitted to Southwark council soon after 9/11, when tall buildings could hardly be described as fashionable. Then the Shard, sited directly opposite the City at London Bridge, had to withstand the financial nuclear winter when banks went bust. So in Sellar's offices just off Oxford Street, there is probably a sense of "I told you so". "We can kick sand in the face of the Eiffel Tower," says Sellar, emitting obvious pride.

The 73-year-old is one of a dying breed. Like the electronics magnate-cum-reality TV Rottweiler Alan Sugar, Sellar probably wouldn't thank you for describing him as a wheeler-dealer, or an Essex boy done good, but there is definitely that about him.

"He is not the easiest man to deal with, but the fact that the Shard is now standing there is testament to his determination to see a project through," says a friend who has known Sellar for more than a decade. "A regular property developer might just have given up on a project like this, but his drive has been astounding. Is it about ego? Sure, there's certainly a degree of egocentricity involved."

Given the proliferation of master's degrees, MBAs and box-ticking human resources departments, it is less than likely that someone like Sellar, who has little formal education, could now scale the professional heights he has if he were today starting his business career. Like any number of young people with similar backgrounds in the 1960s, Sellar started out by selling clothes on the market stalls around London and Essex. That took him to the then thriving Carnaby Street, which "I hit at just the right time", he has said.

Others would dispute that his success is just down to timing. "Despite the fact that he can be unreasonable, he is like any successful man. He gets up in the morning and wants to have achieved something by the time he's going to bed," says a colleague.

It was certainly on Carnaby Street, at the height of Swinging London, that Sellar found his fame, and the start of his fortune. He founded the first of his "Mates by Irvine Sellar" stores, which became, he claims, the first retailer to sell men's and women's clothes in the same shop. "I think the successor to what we did is Next, which is a similar thing," he has said. "I was in every known high street, and well known in Scotland, England and Wales during the 1970s. And it was a very professional business: we had 3,000 employees and stores all over the place. I don't think there was a person in this country that wasn't wearing something from us. Mates by Irvine Sellar was a much bigger brand than any I've known since."

He has expressed regret at not sticking with the fashion industry, and looking at the wealth acquired by Philip Green, whose Arcadia group has made him a billionaire, it is easy to see why. Still, the Loadsamoney culture of the late 1980s and early 1990s offered up the property market as a place to get rich quick. Spotting the opportunity, Sellar made the jump. Today, he is a very wealthy man. The latest Sunday Times Rich List estimates his wealth at £190m, making him the 395th richest person in the country.

As with many rags-to-riches tales, it has not been all seamless growth and progress. The move into the property business looked ill conceived when the bubble that had first attracted Sellar burst spectacularly in 1992, claiming his first foray and leaving him with a reported £30m loss.

Compared with others, he got off lightly (Gerald Ronson, who at the time was in Ford open prison for his part in the Guinness scandal, is believed to have lost more than £500m) and lived to fight another day.

Cheap deals in the aftermath of the crash gave Sellar his ticket back in and allowed ambitions such as the Shard to fester. But before building work started, he expressed doubts over whether or not the Shard would ever get off Renzo Piano's charts. He fell out with the original financial backers in 2007, who were probably going to withdraw for financial reasons anyway, leaving him searching for new financing. The hole was filled by Qatari investors, but the terms were onerous and Sellar's personal stake in the £3bn project was knocked down to just 20 per cent.

But even that deal also offers an insight into how far Sellar has come. He counts among his friends Prince Andrew – who officiated at Thursday night's celebrations – and while he has not said so, there is more than a hint that the prince played a role in supporting the project. "The prince has long held a special interest," says Sellar. Perhaps because of his reputation for attacking a number of modern architectural projects, Andrew's brother, Prince Charles, has given the Shard less attention, "which is a plus", Sellar says.

The fireworks on Thursday night did not signal the end of the project as far as Sellar is concerned. At the opening ceremony, which he always promised would come before the Olympic Games opening ceremony that London is due to host on 27 July, Sellar was in ebullient mood, extolling the virtues of the Shard as a London landmark.

In a nod to the aim of attracting fashionable businesses, residents and shoppers, the mantra is that the Shard is Europe's "only vertical town". But all the bonhomie this week cannot, however, disguise the fact that there has been a dearth of interested tenants.

Sellar says that everything is on schedule and friends point out that the building is not yet ready for business tenants (so far only a hotel is signed up), but the fact that none of the office space has been sold is a concern. That worry is exacerbated by the fact that the rest of the development, which takes in another 400,000 square feet of offices next door and the redevelopment of London Bridge Station, is also unlet.

The Qataris, we are told, are relaxed about the rate of progress, a point backed up by Sellar's colleague who points out that the investors are outright owners of the project and that it is "different" from others. "No big property company would ever have done this. It is far too ambitious. Within a year, maybe 18 months, I reckon three-quarters of the offices will be full."

But by the time it is ready for people to move in, the Shard will no longer be Europe's tallest building – that title will be claimed next year by Moscow's Federation Tower – and unless it is filled, those on Parliament Hill will not only be looking at something that eclipses the 350-year-old St Paul's, but is also London's tallest white elephant.

One thing's for sure: Irvine Sellar will be doing everything to make sure the Shard succeeds.

A Life In Brief

Born: Essex. He is 73.

Family: Married with three children.

Education: Left school at 16 to take over the running of his father's glove shop in St Albans.

Career: Opened clothes stores in Wardour Street and Carnaby Street. When he sold his business, Mates by Irvine Sellar, in 1981, there were 90 stores across the country. Built up property business Ford Sellar Morris that eventually went bust in 1991. Sellar's ambitions for the Shard began in 1998.

He says: "The Shard will become as essential a part of a visit to London as going to the top of the Empire State Building is in New York."

They say: "The Shard shows money trumping planning" – Simon Jenkins, columnist and chairman of the National Trust

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