George Iacobescu: the man who transformed London

George Iacobescu, the man who – quite literally – put Canary Wharf on the map, is stepping back from his executive role. He will be a tough act to follow, says Jane Lewis

George Iacobescu was in his early forties when his boss, Paul Reichmann, founder of the Canadian developer Olympia & York, sent him to London to investigate the possibility of building in the city’s Docklands. It was 1986, the year of Big Bang, and the area had been designated an enterprise zone by Margaret Thatcher. Iacobescu walked from his hotel in Mayfair, along the river to Canary Wharf, says The Sunday Times. What he found made him think of The Long Good Friday – the gangster movie starring Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren. “I saw 500 years of history along the Embankment and then I arrived here and there was nothingness,” he relates. “I went back and said: ‘Don’t touch it’.”

An architectural revolution

London’s recent history might have been very different had Reichmann taken his scout’s advice. Indeed, having overcome his initial doubts, Iacobescu became the “visionary” who quite literally put Canary Wharf “on the map”, says the Financial Times – eventually becoming “synonymous with the Docklands financial district”. He transformed London’s skyscape, presiding over what he now calls the biggest architectural revolution in the capital “since John Nash designed the West End”. But, more than that, he helped cement London’s emergence as a modern financial powerhouse to rival Wall Street. Former Lloyds of London chairman Peter Levene compares him to the PM who backed the project. “Rather like Margaret Thatcher, the one person who came up with solutions was George.”

Born in 1945 to a family of dissidents in the oppressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist Romania, Iacobescu grew up in a world of such dire economic mismanagement and stark shortages that families “were allowed one light bulb per apartment”, says The Independent. When his mother-in-law went to hospital for an operation, she had to bring her own lightbulb for the operating table. Iacobescu’s father was a doctor who, like most people in the country, failed to prosper and his own career path was set early. His first job involved carrying pails of concrete to the tenth floor of a building site. But, ultimately, “Romania’s economic disaster provided the means of his deliverance.” The need for foreign currency was great and “the country had little to export apart from its people”, fuelling an underground trade. Iacobescu emigrated in 1975, says The Sunday Times. He fled to Montreal and spent another two years lobbying to get his fiancée out, “eventually resorting to a successful hunger strike outside the UN building in New York. “A chance encounter at a party got him a job with Olympia & York.”

Will Canary Wharf survive?

It hasn’t always been plain sailing, says the FT. The Canary Wharf project bankrupted debt-ridden O&Y, but Iacobescu joined the new company that took on the scheme and eventually rose to run it. Now 75, he is preparing to hand over responsibility of the Canary Wharf Group to Shobi Khan, who joined as CEO last year. The cigar-chomping Iacobescu will be a tough act to follow, says The Independent. A courteous, avuncular figure, “he’s the patriarch whom the lowliest security guards approach with problems”.

The pandemic has placed a question mark over the future of Canary Wharf, says The Times. But the man isn’t having any of it. “Working from home is a fad,” he declares. “There is a logic to having an office. There is a culture, there is competition, there is creativity, there is dating, there is learning…We’re all chemically made to be together.”

Recommended

Why are people panicking about fuel shortages?
UK Economy

Why are people panicking about fuel shortages?

With huge queues forming at petrol stations around the country, Saloni Sardana looks at the reasons behind the fuel shortage and asks how long it's l…
28 Sep 2021
Why investors should beware of corporate waffle
Investment strategy

Why investors should beware of corporate waffle

When top executives try to retreat behind impenetrable jargon, investors should be very sceptical, says John Stepek.
28 Sep 2021
Ensign Group: profiting from US private care
Trading

Ensign Group: profiting from US private care

Nursing and care-home specialist Ensign Group should thrive as Americans age. Matthew Partridge picks the best way to play it.
28 Sep 2021
Salary sacrifice: how to earn less and save more into your pension
Pensions

Salary sacrifice: how to earn less and save more into your pension

Changing the way that you save for retirement could help limit the damage of next year’s national insurance rise.
28 Sep 2021

Most Popular

A nightmare 1970s scenario for investors is edging closer
Investment strategy

A nightmare 1970s scenario for investors is edging closer

Inflation need not be a worry unless it is driven by labour market shortages. Unfortunately, writes macroeconomist Philip Pilkington, that’s exactly w…
17 Sep 2021
What really causes inflation? Here’s what prices since 1970 tell us
Inflation

What really causes inflation? Here’s what prices since 1970 tell us

As UK inflation hits 3.2%, Dominic Frisby compares the cost of living 50 years ago with that of today, and explains how debt drives prices higher.
15 Sep 2021
The times may be changing, but don’t change how you invest
Small cap stocks

The times may be changing, but don’t change how you invest

We are living in strange times. But the basics of investing remain the same: buy fairly-priced stocks that can provide an income. And there are few be…
13 Sep 2021