The Business Genius of a Small Merchant Family





By Anthony Bianco

Times Books, 810 pp., $30

"The Reichmanns" is a remarkable book about an intriguing subject, a sprawling, fascinating tale of family and business history, and a saga of the acquisition - and near-total loss - of great wealth. Its backdrop is the Holocaust and the migration to the Western Hemisphere of the surviving Jews of Central Europe.

It is, to be sure, overly long and laden with real estate technicalities: Anthony Bianco (a Business Week writer) fills it with exhaustive research. But he tells his tale with great gusto, and it deserves the most attentive reading.

The five Reichmann brothers of Canada and Israel all derive from a small merchant family in a village of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ultra-Orthodox, their lives pivoted on prayer, study, charity, family and business, and were tightly regulated, from dietary and clothing imperatives, to those of Talmudic studies and charitable donations.

Forbidden to own land, Jews became merchants, prospering mightily as modern capitalism penetrated Central Europe in the late l9th century. Family and Judaism came first, occupation a distant second, country and politics, last of all. The ultra-Orthodox were patriarchal, wary, defensive, inward facing, and tightly bound together.

Samuel, the Reichmann father, had a brilliant insight in the late l930s. By then, he had moved the family to Vienna, and was prospering as a wholesale egg dealer. He realized that Hitler meant business, that war - and destructive anti-Semitism - were imminent. Other Jews did not; he argued with them, but to no avail.

Having transferred their money to Swiss accounts, the Reichmanns fled, first to Paris, and then to Tangiers in l940, where they prospered in its entirely unregulated atmosphere as money-changers and bankers. Their odyssey had demonstrated the power of money. While other Jews had perished, the Reichmanns had been able to buy or bribe their way across borders to safety.

But politics intervened yet again in the l950s. Moroccan nationalism was on the warpath; the Jews of Tangiers were too foreign, too European, and too closely identified with Israel. The Reichmanns moved yet again, to Toronto, where these newcomers found their great chance in real estate development in this new land, open to new ideas and methods, rich in natural resources, and without significant anti-Semitism.

From the ownership of a humble tile factory, they established Olympia & York, moving in l973 to construct the First Canadian Place, a skyscraper office complex in Toronto; building the vast World Financial Center in New York during the early l980s; entering the huge Canary Wharf project, along the Thames in London's East End in the l990s. And this is not to mention a host of lesser projects in Canada and the US. There were, after all, five Reichmanns, all involved in projects great and small.

But one stood out: Paul, the fourth in line. Soft-spoken and calm, he exuded an air of gentle wisdom and reasonableness, more that of a philosopher king than of a businessman. "He presented himself as a brilliant yet humble visionary," Bianco quotes a Canadian banker, "and bank presidents and chairmen just ate it up."

As staunchly Orthodox as his siblings, he impressed Christians with such strict observances as not conducting business on the Sabbath or on Jewish holidays.

Paul Reichmann gradually took command, building Olympia & York into a huge enterprise, meant for large, distinctive projects, and concocting elaborate deals to provide them.

In reality, he had become a gambler, obsessed with "the art of the deal" and enthusiastic about restructuring London with the far-fetched Canary Wharf project, which led Olympia & York to the ultimate deal: bankruptcy.

* Leonard Bushkoff regularly reviews books on history for the Monitor.

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