‘We built a city’: George Iacobusco on the vision behind Canary Wharf

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The property developer reflects on conjuring a financial district from London’s derelict docklands — and why working from home is overrated

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“Today, I pinch myself,” says Sir George Iacobescu shortly after we take our seats in the leafy garden of the Arts Club, a stately townhouse in London’s Mayfair, tucked between the Ritz and Berkeley Square.

It’s not difficult to imagine why the businessman and chair of Canary Wharf Group feels that his life is like a dream. Iacobescu grew up in communist Romania in the decades after the Second World War. Conditions were so dire that when his mother-in-law needed a cancer operation, the family removed the only lightbulb from their home and sent it with her to the hospital so that the surgeons would have enough light to operate.

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Now, the 78-year-old sits across from me at his favourite corner table on the terrace, wearing a long orange scarf atop his blue jacket and sweater. The patio heater beats down on his tanned face as he decides between tagliatelle with truffles and the lamb chops. “It is my table when there is nobody else at it,” he jokes. Even in January, he prefers “the feeling of freedom” in the garden.

Iacobescu has the joie de vivre of someone for whom luxury has been hard earned. He recently replaced his Maserati with an eco-conscious electric Audi.

After studying engineering and escaping from Romania to Canada aged 30, he worked as an engineer in construction by day and as a labourer demolishing fire-damaged buildings at night. His achievements since then have been — quite literally — monumental. At the developer Olympia & York, he oversaw the construction of buildings such as New York’s World Financial Center, now Brookfield Place.

But London is home to his life’s work. For more than three decades, he has been the driving force behind Canary Wharf. From the desolate ex-docklands he first visited in 1987, Iacobescu conjured a glittering city of dozens of skyscrapers, much of it built on water. Few individuals since Christopher Wren in the 17th century or John Nash at the turn of the 19th have left such a personal footprint on the map of London.

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The redevelopment of the former docklands was the emblem of the United Kingdom’s economic transformation in the 1980s and ’90s — kicked off by the “Big Bang” under Margaret Thatcher, which deregulated the U.K.’s financial markets and heralded the internationalization of London’s financial services industry.

Pedestirans walk around Canary Wharf
George Iacobescu argues that Canary Wharf is a neighbourhood, not just a collection of office towers. Photo by Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Today, that legacy is threatened. Brexit has jeopardized London’s place as Europe’s financial capital. And the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of working from home have left the vast office floors in Canary Wharf’s towers looking to some just as obsolete as the old cargo docks they replaced. The Wharf is at the sharp edge of a crisis in the US$4.65 trillion global office investment market and a generational rethink about where people should work.

When chancellor Jeremy Hunt wanted to signal his ambitions to revitalize the U.K. economy last year, he pledged to seed 12 potential new Canary Wharfs. Iacobescu tells me the chancellor asked for his advice, but did not necessarily heed it. “You know how many they have done?” he says mischievously, making the number zero with his fingers.

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Though dour about the state of U.K. politics, Iacobescu says he’s untroubled about Canary Wharf’s future. Where once the Wharf was a handful of isolated office towers let to big banks, he now sees it as a fully fledged district of London with a mix of offices, housing, shops and restaurants. The estate will continue to change uses, but with the pressure of urban population growth he argues that Canary Wharf is no more in danger of becoming obsolete than the City.

He is enthusiastic about the Wharf’s achievements. “I think, honestly, you have to choose between hypocritical modesty and pride,” he says. “And I would choose the pride. Because I don’t think anybody has created in London anything like that.”

Retirement ‘overrated’

Despite stepping down as chief executive of Canary Wharf Group to become its chair, Iacobescu has spent the morning at the offices of one of his other development projects. Retirement, he says, is “overrated…. You work and then you die.”

Relaxed and open, he jokes with everyone from the doorman to our neighbours at the next table. As a boss, his reputation is for being both popular and exacting. “The trick is to be tough, but it’s tough love and care,” he later tells me.

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The waiter suggests a Bloody Mary to start. I assent. Iacobescu prefers a Campari soda. “Just that much Campari, that much soda. One cube of ice. Some lemon juice to the side,” he explains.

His love of Campari dates from the time he spent in Italy, where Olympia & York sent him for six months to learn how to run a granite factory. He now has a home in Tuscany. “It is like life,” he says of the drink. “It is sweet and bitter.”

Iacobescu shows no bitterness about his early hardships. He once planned to become a doctor like his father. But despite being a leading specialist, his father barely made a living. Iacobescu says the Romanian regime rewarded “working-class” jobs above intellectuals, something he finds reminiscent of today’s populism.

“Be a construction man,” his father advised. “Because the world will never stop building.”

So it has proved. After a relative in Canada paid to help him move there, he quickly found work as an engineer. He calls these “the dream years, the enthusiastic years.” But it was also a time of struggle, and it took years before his wife was able to join him.

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In Canada, he was free to enjoy another great love of his life: music. As a youth in Romania, Iacobescu tuned in to western music on Radio Free Europe. “We all grew with the body in Romania but the mind in the western world,” he says.

In Montreal, he discovered Leonard Cohen. “For me, there is nothing better in the world. He talks about the mysteries of life,” says Iacobescu. “A lot of the songs are gloomy and sad. But by the time you are finished … you feel good, you feel positive.”

Real estate developer Paul Reichmann
Toronto-based real estate developer Paul Reichmann sent George Iacobescu to scout London’s undeveloped Canary Wharf site in 1987. At the time, Iacobescu told Reichmann not to touch it. Photo by Christopher Cox/Daily Telegraph

He speaks slowly, still with a perceptible accent, and an understated confidence. As we settle in, he steers the conversation from Canary Wharf to the war in Gaza. It’s clear the conflict has been weighing on his mind, and he returns to the subject several times. His motto is “land for peace.”

Iacobescu, who is Jewish, says Hamas must be destroyed but also argues that Benjamin Netanyahu should go as Israel’s leader. He laments the lack of a visionary figure like Nelson Mandela to lead reconciliation. “There is no other solution but a two-state solution,” he says. “You have to make peace in such a way that your neighbours are prospering and are having a normal life. So they don’t want to attack you.”

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Our first course arrives: two bowls of cream of artichoke soup, each topped by three paper-thin disks of Périgord truffle. The brainlike pattern is less than appetizing but the first spoonful changes my mind — rich and perfectly balanced.

Earlier, Iacobescu had gently teased the waiter about whether the club had changed its spoons yet. Now, I find that he has a point. There is something off about the proportion and shape of the scoop.

I can imagine Iacobescu’s frustration with the imperfect design. He’s an engineer to his fingertips. The day before, showing me around Canary Wharf, he was eager to explain the details of piling and cofferdams — seizing a paper napkin to sketch the design for the Wharf’s new Elizabeth Line station, which he says cost less than half the anticipated £1.1 billion

Bananas unloaded

When Iacobescu first visited Canary Wharf, dispatched on a scouting mission by Olympia & York boss Paul Reichmann, it was an unlikely spot for a financial district. Iacobescu’s sweep through the history of the site takes in William the Conqueror, Henry VIII and William Pitt the Younger — who moved the docks there around 1800. The bananas being unloaded from the Canary Islands gave the place its name.

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By the 1980s, the area had been desolate for decades. Iacobescu, who had not visited London before, got lost as he walked for over two hours to reach Canary Wharf.

“What am I doing here? Are you kidding me?” he recalls thinking. He told Reichmann: “Don’t touch it.”

In a way, Iacobescu was right. Olympia & York overcame the challenges of building skyscrapers on the docks, and in the water, to meet the specifications of American banks looking for modern trading floors that the 1980s City of London didn’t offer. But the Wharf suffered from a lack of transport links, which Thatcher had promised. Delays to the Docklands Light Railway, and then to the Tube network’s Jubilee Line, contributed to Canary Wharf’s bankruptcy in 1992.

Reichmann regained control in 1995 with a group of investors. Iacobescu has been a constant through the recovery and expansion of Canary Wharf under various ownership arrangements since then, including a period as a listed company. Canadian giant Brookfield Corp. and the Qatar Investment Authority acquired the estate in 2015 for £2.6 billion.

The day before our lunch, on the 30th floor of One Canada Square, he’d shown me scale models of the whole estate and a vast, detailed model-map of London. Iacobescu pushed buttons to flash colourful lights that marked each of the crucial railway lines he’d campaigned for — including the Elizabeth Line. He has in some sense spent most of his career waiting for the train.

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“We didn’t build buildings. We built a city,” he says. He argues that Canary Wharf and the rail links were “the catalyst” for vast changes in east London, pointing to developments in the area — the Millennium Dome, City Airport, the ExCel conference centre and the 2012 Olympics site.

London's Millennium Dome
George Iacodescu credits Canary Wharf with revitalizing London’s east end, leading to the construction of landmarks such as the Millennium Dome. Photo by Handout

Although the British state has been an unreliable partner in the project, Canary Wharf ultimately became one of the country’s most successful public-private ventures. And it’s clear Iacobescu still admires Thatcher. He has met every prime minister since. Was she the most impressive? Yes, he says. “She didn’t let go.”

In the 1990s, when Thatcher was out of office, Iacobescu recalls a call from her secretary. “She said: ‘I’m going to just read you what Mrs Thatcher dictated. Why (don’t) these nice people at Canary Wharf invite me?’” He took the hint, and swiftly organized a visit.

The main dishes arrive: lamb chops for me and tagliatelle with more truffle for Iacobescu.

What are the other elements of a successful private partnership with the government? Iacobescu begins to answer, then breaks off, hoisting a generous portion of pasta high above his plate. “Come, come,” he says.

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Baffled, I pause. “Come here with your plate,” he insists. He lowers the tagliatelle for me to try. Throughout our meetings, he takes a kindly if slightly dictatorial interest in making sure I am well fed and enjoying myself. In this respect only, he reminds me of my Italian grandmother-in-law.

Lack of courage

“The fact is that nobody has the courage,” he says, returning to his verdict on the U.K. government and its dealings with business. He credits the late Michael von Clemm, Credit Suisse First Boston chair, with the original “vision” that the Wharf could be a financial centre, and Michael Heseltine for his key role as a longtime cabinet minister.

“What I would like to (see) in this country is … a five-year plan, a 10-year, a 15-year plan,” he continues. “There is no long-term planning. People react.”

Housing is one area where he would like to see bolder thinking, calling it “the foundation of a democratic society.” He deplores the decision under Thatcher to largely halt house building by the state and delegate it to the private sector. “It doesn’t work,” he says. He argues that the government should build two million to 2.5 million new social and affordable homes.

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“This is the role of the government, to have a strategic view and a vision. You’re going to go through good times, bad times, good times again, but you have to keep the eye on the prize,” he says. “Going back to Canary Wharf, (that) is why Canary Wharf succeeded — because we went through all these ups and downs many times, but we had in mind that the model is right.”

We have ordered dessert. I take the suggestion of a pistachio soufflé. Iacobescu asks if the soufflé comes in other flavours, brightening at the mention of a strawberry cheesecake. “Wow,” he says, when my soufflé arrives, with a generous inch and a half of fluffy cloud protruding above the dish. We each have an Americano, his with cold milk on the side.

I return to the future of Canary Wharf. HSBC Holdings PLC‘s announcement last year that it plans to leave the tower it occupied in 2002 and return to the City has been seen as a bellwether that the Wharf is out of favour with the financial giants that have been its anchor tenants. Skyscraper offices are now less popular in London than low-rise West End buildings with terraces, gardens and their feet planted in buzzy neighbourhoods. Only this week, a sale was agreed for a Canary Wharf office building at a 60 per cent discount to its 2017 price.

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HSBC tower in London's Canary Wharf
HSBC announced last year that it was moving its U.K. headquarters out of Canary Wharf to London’s financial district, the City. Photo by olga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Iacobescu points out that new financial tenants have recently moved to the Wharf and that, since before COVID-19, the estate has diversified its office clients and added thousands of units of housing, alongside more restaurants and shops. He sees it now as a neighbourhood, not a warehouse for finance workers. Working from home, he says, is “not utopia, it’s dystopia.”

It is the judgment you would expect from a prolific office developer, but equally reflects the joy that Iacobescu has taken from his work and the personal relationships he has formed.

“If you look at the two of us, you have got the answer to the question. Why did we meet today? We could have done it by (Microsoft) Teams,” he says.

For Iacobescu, not working appears to be more of a challenge. He tells me that he still works six and a half days a week, sometimes until midnight — then often smokes a cigar in the garden of his Mayfair home, reading and listening to jazz until around 1 a.m.

“It’s very difficult to draw a vertical line and say, ‘That was work, that’s retirement,’” he says. “Canary Wharf doesn’t stop today because I retire…. It’s like your daughter. She got married, but she’s still your daughter.”

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As we reach the end of the second hour of our lunch, Iacobescu excuses himself to take a phone call. I ask for the bill. The waiter nervously eyes “Sir George’s” chair, until I reassure him that it’s been agreed I will pay.

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Iacobescu has talked about the importance of a single management and vision. I am curious: does he think that his personal contribution to Canary Wharf has been to provide that consistency? He agrees. It has been, he says, a cycle of “optimism, despair, realism…. It takes courage, and a little bit of craziness. But craziness has become wisdom.”

© 2024 The Financial Times Ltd

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