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
(Image credit: © Shutterstock)

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.”

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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.”

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.