Meet Sir George Iacobescu, who fled communist repression to create a Docklands city within a city…
There is — quite literally — a light-bulb moment that tells you why Sir George Iacobescu and millions of others were desperate to escape Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist Romania.
Economic mismanagement and shortages were so stark that families living under the dictator’s repressive regime were allowed one light bulb per apartment. High up in One Canada Square — the first of the dozens of buildings he has masterminded in the Docklands and elsewhere in London — he recalls: “The saddest story was when my mother-in-law had to have an operation. She went to the hospital and she was told, ‘We’ll operate on you but you have to bring your own light bulb for the operating table’. So she came with a 40-watt bulb, leaving the apartment in the dark. They used the bulb, and after when she went home she was given back the bulb.”
Iacobescu, who grew up in similar poverty, resolved to escape Ceausescu’s regime by the time he was 12. “There is a cartoon which illustrates exactly life in Romania. The cartoon was made of a huge arrow labelled “march towards communism” and the arrow is made out of millions of small arrows pointing the opposite way,” he adds in his accented English.
But Romania’s economic disaster also provided the means of his deliverance: the situation was so dire — and the need for foreign currency so great — that the country had little to export apart from its people. It took him four years, but he managed to get out in 1975 with help from a broker in Park Lane and an aunt in Canada. It took another year to get his wife Gabriela out, too.
Despite the privations of the regime, Iacobescu could always fall back on his main talent. His father was a doctor, but George is an engineer by training and has barely stopped building for nearly half a century, from communist pumping stations to mlllion-square-foot mega-towers in London.
His first major projects for Canadian developer Olympia & York — Chicago’s Olympia Centre skyscraper and the vast World Financial Centre in New York — look like mere warm-up acts for what followed when he moved to London in the Eighties.
Now 72, he is the only Romanian to be knighted by the Queen. We sit surrounded by the monuments to 30 years of hard work and his vision as well as the far-sightedness of Paul Reichmann, the founder of O&Y, which bought Margaret Thatcher’s Docklands development zone in 1987.
He’s incredibly proud of what Canary Wharf has become — a financial centre half as big again as Frankfurt with a working population the size of Cambridge — although there’s no ego: he even advised Reichmann against buying after an unpleasant walk through the undeveloped site three decades ago. “I made a mistake,” he laughs.
Iacobescu was a disruptor long before the techies grabbed the word: Canary Wharf was a “shock to the system”, he says. It did in three decades what had taken the Square Mile 500 years — delivering a new product and forcing the City to open up development to the towers dotting the skyline today.
He is not a revolutionary at first glance, however; he’s a bespectacled avuncular figure, full of friendly pats on the shoulder, and extremely courteous: he even offers me a glass of vodka with lunch “to be a good host”. At Canary Wharf, he’s a patriarch whom the lowliest security guards approach with problems — “even though we tell them not to”, says one senior staffer.
That said, Iacobescu is demanding; one industry figure who has worked with him says “things need to happen fast”.
He has also had to draw on considerable resolve to overcome numerous financial and political hurdles, not least O&Y’s collapse into administration in the early Nineties, its resurrection as Canary Wharf Ltd, and broken Government promises on transport links such as the late-arriving Jubilee line.
Lord Levene, who took Canary Wharf out of administration with Sir George as his deputy, “recognised straight-away that this guy knew what he was doing — I would rely more and more on him”. Levene says Iacobescu is “remarkable”. He adds: “Everything he touches turns to gold. What he has done in London, nobody else has done.”
The view from the 31st floor, overlooking the European Medicines Agency’s headquarters, is a giant reminder of the next challenge he faces. The EMA — which Levene himself negotiated to bring to the Wharf more than 20 years ago — is off to Amsterdam after Brexit.
Sir George, who had given campaigning space to Remainers during the referendum, took the result badly (“like a bereavement”, according to one friend). His PR minder is ready to kick him under the table but he can’t help but hide his disdain for Boris Johnson, whom he says “tried not to be burdened by the facts” during the campaign.
He maintains “the country did not get the whole picture of Brexit” and “nobody explained to the electorate the repercussions”. As an engineer who built a skyscraper on water, he also sniffs at the crude tool of referendums: “The question was so simplistic that it prevented a proper analysis.”
The scars cut deeper for an outsider welcomed by the UK. “There was a lot of hype, there was a lot of damage… I’m talking about the damage that was done from the anti-European or anti-immigrant rhetoric, which was quite often mindless. It was unfortunately telegraphed around the world.”
He’s similarly scathing of Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-Left Labour (“Trotsky didn’t die in vain”) and, as a Jew, is wary of the accusations of anti-Semitism clouding the party.
He adds: “The biggest challenge for the Government is to show the world physically and financially that we are open for business. You close your eyes, five years from now and the Brexit negotiation will be over — hopefully — but you have to keep your eyes on the prize and that is to keep London what it is, a fabulous open city which is open to the world.”
Since 2014, Iacobescu has at least been able to steer things away from the public glare after a £2.6 billion takeover by the Qatar Investment Authority and Canadian giant Brookfield.
The deal tidied up a complex ownership structure, itself a relic of a previous bid battle in 2004 which removed Reichmann, who died three years ago, from the scene. The latest Companies House results show a £7.4 billion portfolio and underlying profits of £153 million, up more than 60% on the previous year.
The Romanian says “life is definitely easier” in private hands in the light of Brexit. There would have been jitters from shareholders over its vast development pipeline if it was still listed.
There’s Wood Wharf — the “soft edge” of the Docklands mothership which will see 3300 apartments, shops, hotels and smaller offices for the likes of fintech and arts tenants. Iacobescu also has on his plate the vast redevelopment of the former Shell Centre alongside Qatari Diar, the QIA’s developer. Then there’s the bid in for a “once in a generation” multi-billion transformation of one of London’s drabbest areas around Euston station.
If the bid is successful, it is unlikely that Iacobescu will be around to see Euston transformed. He’s slightly ambivalent when asked about retirement (“if I get run over by a bus, there’s somebody who will step into my place within two hours”) but the minder adds that he’s “lost none of his appetite”. Iacobescu starts later in the morning, after 9am, but often works through until 1am.
When he’s not working, he “relaxes by working less”, sitting in his garden, listening to jazz and puffing away on the finest Cohiba Behike Cuban cigars — £700 for a box of 10 — made in a small Havana factory. “They used to make cigars for Fidel Castro to give to the heads of government. Then they realised it was such a good product that they started to export it.”
Somehow he has also found time to set up the Teach First charity, providing teachers for inner city schools, has been a trustee of the British Museum and served on countless boards and panels — all while spending his working life building a city within a city.
Not bad for an immigrant from Eastern Europe. What have they ever done for the UK?