10/25/2013 03:25 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Paul Reichmann, Developer Behind Canary Wharf, First Canadian Place, Dead At 83

TORONTO - Few Canadian business executives ever achieved the legendary status Paul Reichmann did in the years before his family-controlled real estate empire collapsed.

Reichmann, who died Friday at the age of 83, built Olympia and York Developments into a $25-billion empire that was once the world's largest private real estate company.

An employee for ReichmannHauer Capital Partners, a Toronto company run by his son-in-law Frank Hauer and nephew Phillip Reichmann, confirmed his death. She provided no further details and wouldn't give her name.

Reichmann, with his brothers, turned a Toronto tile company into a major international property developer that became the name behind some of the best-known projects in the world before eventually going bankrupt in the early 1990s.

Among the major financial complexes it built were Canary Wharf in London, the World Financial Center in New York City and First Canadian Place in Toronto.

Part of the Reichmann mystique was an uncanny shrewdness revealed over and over until it lost its currency with O and Y's disintegration in the commercial real estate bust of the early 1990s.

Unmistakable in appearance with his full beard, piercing brown eyes and ever-present dark business suit and yarmulke, Reichmann was a business tycoon with a soul. He had a reputation for integrity, an aversion to publicity and a deep commitment to the Orthodox Jewish faith.

For years, Paul Reichmann and his brothers, Albert and Ralph, appeared in lists of the world's Top 10 richest families. Their fortune was estimated as high as $12.8 billion US in 1991.

Paul Reichmann was born in 1931, the son of a Vienna egg exporter. His family fled the Nazis during the 1940s and ended up in the Moroccan port of Tangier for several years before arriving in Canada in 1956.

The family opened a tile importing company, a venture that led to real estate when the brothers realized it would be cheaper to build a new warehouse themselves than to hire a builder.

The Reichmanns started to become a force in Canadian real estate in the 1970s, expanding their presence from Toronto to Ottawa and the West.

What became O and Y's flagship property in Canada, the 72-storey marble-covered First Canadian Place in downtown Toronto, was finished in 1975.

Two years later, Reichmann made a deal that has since been celebrated as the quintessence of his business acumen.

In the midst of an economic slump in which New York City flirted with bankruptcy, he bought eight Manhattan skycrapers for US$320 million. The value of the buildings soon tripled to more than $1 billion.

In the ensuing years, O and Y built the World Financial Centre in New York and acquired enough properties in Canada and the United States to rank as the world's largest private landlord.

To diversify, Reichmann also engineered a series of costly investments in the newsprint maker then known as Abitibi-Price Inc. and Gulf Canada Resources Ltd.

Despite his growing wealth and power, Reichmann lived well but not ostentatiously. He and his brothers closed their offices on the Sabbath and holy days and were active philanthropists who gave away millions of dollars in donations.

Above all, he seemed to crave privacy for himself, his financial affairs and his family, dispensing occasional interviews only to selected publications.

When a journalist wrote an in-depth profile of the family for Toronto Life magazine in 1987, he launched a $102-million libel suit that was settled out of court years later.

Reichmann could be dismissive of those who raised questions about his business empire.

In a December 1990 interview with the New York Times, for example, he said people speculating that O and Y was pressed for cash were "children who don't know that they are talking about."

In a sense, Reichmann's vision made O and Y great, and that same vision was the company's downfall.

When O and Y took over the Canary Wharf project in London's east end docklands in 1987, Reichmann believed London was on its way to an new era of prosperity under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

But Britain slumped and its commercial real estate market withered.

The $7-billion, 28.5-hectare Canary Wharf monopolized Reichmann's time and money at a time when recession in North America was relentlessly shrinking property values and slashing rental revenues.

With his once-cordial relationship with bankers deteriorating by the minute, Reichmann tried to turn things around by hiring a respected New York banking executive to be president of O and Y. The banker soon quit amid rumours that Reichmann was unwilling to hand over control.

O and Y filed for court protection from creditors in May 1992 with a debt of $8.6 billion. Canary Wharf was taken over by a liquidator shortly after.

By the time O and Y was emerging from the court proceedings in January 1993 as little more than a manager of the properties it once owned, Reichmann's mourning period was over.

Less than a week later, he announced plans to form a new real estate investment partnership with New York-based financier George Soros. Later, he returned as chairman of Canary Wharf and held the position until 2004 when he resigned in a disagreement over its ownership.

His final years were mostly spent in retirement, though he did spend some time dabbling in business with a new $4-billion fund called PR Capital.