The property world laughed at Irvine Sellar when, in 2000, he declared he was going to develop Europe’s tallest skyscraper above the decidedly down-at-heel London Bridge station
Today, the 1,016 ft, 87-storey Shard 1,016 ft, 87-storey Shard stands as a fitting monument to one of the property industry’s biggest characters, who died unexpectedly last Sunday after a short illness, aged 82.
This week, the great and the good of the property world lined up to pay tribute to the man who for many was the epitome of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘unreasonable man’.
Sellar himself used the phrase – he had the quote framed above his desk – and it is easy to see why.
The quote reads: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
He was a very creative man; a man with an obstinance and determination - Renzo Piano
There certainly would have been no progress at The Shard without Irvine Sellar. World-renowned architect Renzo Piano stood shoulder to shoulder with him during the battle to build The Shard.
The Italian was moved to tears as he paid tribute to his “very special friend”.
“This is a very sad day. He was a very close friend. We had a very special relationship,” said Piano, recalling their first encounter. “The first time we met was in 2000 in Berlin. It was then he told me of his project, The Shard. I said yes immediately. You have the word ‘chemistry’ in English. I prefer to talk about affinity. Irvine and I had an affinity. When people meet they may find they have very different backgrounds, but they are equally adventurous. He was a very creative man; a man with an obstinance and determination.
“The Shard is one of my proudest moments, and without Irvine’s obstinance it would never have happened. We had so many challenges, but Irvine never doubted it would come to be. Irvine was an adventurer, a man of exaggerated desires and a man I am honoured to have called my friend.”
Work with a capital W
Determined, ambitious, a workaholic, obstinate and difficult to deal with at times, Sellar was “one of the last dinosaurs of the property industry”, according to Gerald Ronson.
“This is not a good day,” he said. “Irvine and I went back 49 years. I first met him when I sold him a Rolls-Royce when I was running HR Owen. We’ve both had our ups and downs since then, but we both ended up on top. He was a huge character, a property wheeler-dealer, one of the most persistent people you would ever meet. Work had a capital ‘W’ in it for Irvine.
“The property industry has changed so much during our time. We need more characters like Irvine, but sadly the entrepreneurs are few and far between now.
“They’ve been replaced by a lot of grey suits, using other people’s money to invest in property. Me and Irvine put our necks on the line, but it’s a very different business now. We were very good friends, and I will miss him a great deal.”
Another close friend was media mogul Richard Desmond. After being introduced to Sellar by Ronson three decades ago, the pair struck up an immediate and long-lasting friendship. Desmond described how helpful Sellar had been to him over the years.
“Irvine was a great man who only ever tried to help me with good advice, experience and contacts. We met each other around 30 years ago when things were very different for us both,” said the chairman of Northern & Shell, which includes Express Newspapers, OK! magazine and the Health Lottery among its media portfolio.
“There is absolutely no doubt that without his huge determination and single-mindedness there would be no Shard today and no South Bank rejuvenation. Every day, I shall look across my office at The Shard and think of him.”
The last of Ronson’s dinosaurs was also keen to pay tribute to Sellar. As the long-term boss of British Land, Sir John Ritblat was at the heart of the corporate world, something Sellar could not abide.
However, both were wheeler-dealers in their own way back in the day. “Latterly his claim to fame must be his perseverance in terms of planning, conception and construction of The Shard, and together with the Qataris establishing a significant new focal point in this part of inner London,” said Ritblat. “Great credit to him for that as it has been a significant achievement.”
From rag trade to property riches Sellar’s career in retailing and property stretched back more than 60 years. He was one of the fashion retailers at the heart of the Carnaby Street revolution and the ‘swinging London’ of the 1960s. The success of his fashion brand Mates by Irvine Sellars (sic), the UK’s second-largest
Sellar, was self-made and from East End of London. He made his name in the swinging London fashion scene in the 1960s.
The success of his fashion brand Mates by Irvine Sellars (sic), the UK’s second-largest fashion chain, was born out of the street markets that once dominated UK towns.
The life and times of a true property legend
- Irvine Gerald Sellar is born in September 1938. His father is a glove shopkeeper in the East End of London
- Drops out of school at 16 and goes on to found Mates by Irvine Sellars on Carnaby Street, the first retail chain to sell men’s and women’s clothing under the same roof. Having made Mates the second-largest fashion store in the UK, Sellar sells the business in 1981 to a south African investor
- Sellar founds Ford Sellar Morris, a property company listed on the London Stock Exchange. It falls into administration in 1992 during the property crash, when he is reported to have lost £30m
- Sellar founds Sellar Property Group and acquires the headquarters of PwC in 1998. Southwark Towers provides the kernel for what will later become The Shard
- With backing from Qatari investors, Sellar completes construction of The Shard in 2012.
- He subsequently develops buildings near Paddington Station and in December 2016, his plans to develop the £775m, 19- storey Paddington Cube are approved by Westminster City Council
Even at the very beginning of his career, Sellar was doing things differently. With Mates, he was the first fashion retailer to sell men’s and women’s clothing from the same store.
After selling Mates to a South African investment group in 1981, Sellar moved into property and within a few years headed up the Stock Exchange-quoted Ford Sellar Morris, which at its peak generated annual pre-tax pro ts of £25m and held a widely spread investment and development portfolio.
Along with other companies in the sector, the 1991-93 property market crash hit his fortunes hard and Ford Sellar Morris went into administration. But Sellar picked himself up and started again.
The turning point came in November 1998 when he and two partners acquired accountancy firm PwC’s headquarters at London Bridge.
Following a government white paper, which recommended planners should look favourably at tall buildings close to major transport hubs, Southwark Towers became the kernel for The Shard and London Bridge Quarter. Plans for the skyscraper were released in April 2000. Few in or outside the property world thought it had any chance of being built.
But after much wrangling, and with the support of then mayor of London Ken Livingstone, the scheme was nally given the go-ahead in November 2003 following an intensive public enquiry. That did not stop the doubters doubting.
Even after gaining planning consent, most believed Sellar would never be able to nance development, which he did after securing two major pre-lets and Qatari backing. Even when construction got under way in 2008, few believed it would be a commercial success.
The Shard was launched in July 2012 with a spectacular light show, but still Sellar’s vision was doubted. They are not questioning his vision any more.
Today, The Shard is a popular tourist venue for those wishing to visit The View from The Shard; the Shangri-La hotel runs at near capacity; the restaurants serve thousands of covers every week; and the office space is virtually fully let at rents that have established a new level for the South Bank area.
Dedication, passion and drive
As was typical of Sellar, he was not going to let something as tri ing as a life-threatening illness stop him. Michael Baker, chief executive of Real Estate Management, the group that manages The Shard and in which Sellar was a stakeholder, met him just last Friday to discuss the current development project at London Bridge Quarter, Shard Place.
During the meeting, Sellar displayed all the dedication, passion and drive for which he was renowned.
“Having had the privilege of working closely with Irvine over the past ve years, it was his commitment, perseverance and unwavering determination that I shall remember the most,” said Baker. “He defied the odds and his doubters with his clear and insightful vision for the regeneration of London Bridge, which brought The Shard to life.
“His legacy has forever changed London’s skyline and he will be remembered as the mastermind behind one of London’s, if not the world’s, most iconic buildings.”
As a mark of respect for Sellar, the spire lights of The Shard will remain dimmed until Sunday, a week after his death.
- “Without Irvine’s obstinance, The Shard would never have happened. We had so many challenges, but Irvine never doubted. Irvine was an adventurer, a man of exaggerated desires and a man I am honoured to have called my friend.” Renzo Piano, architect of The Shard
- “He was a huge character, a property wheeler-dealer, one of the most persistent people you would ever meet. Work had a capital ‘W’ in it for Irvine.” Gerald Ronson, founder of Heron International
- “There is absolutely no doubt that without his huge determination and single-mindedness there would be no Shard today and no South Bank rejuvenation. Every day I shall look across my o ce at The Shard and think of him.” Richard Desmond, chairman of Northern & Shell
- “His legacy has forever changed London’s skyline and he will be remembered as the mastermind behind one of London’s, if not the world’s, most iconic buildings.” Michael Baker, chief executive of Real Estate Management
- “Irvine was one of the great characters of our industry and with The Shard, he has left us with one of its great iconic structures.” Robert Noel, chief executive of Land Securities
- “Irvine achieved something quite exceptional with The Shard. One of London’s most enduring landmarks, which helped place south London rmly on the international map.” Chris Grigg, chief executive of British Land
- “Irvine Sellar was the nicest and most unreasonable man I have ever met. I’m terribly saddened and will miss him enormously.” John Slade, chief executive of BNP Paribas Real Estate UK
- “My big brother told me, if you look around a boardroom table and you can’t see a mug, you’re it. I felt that every time I met Irvine. Instinctive genius. RIP Irvine.” Anthony Lorenz, founder of the Lorenz Consultancy
- “When asked about his lack of traditional property expertise, his response was that he was like a conductor of an orchestra of property professionals – you wouldn’t expect the conductor to play all the instruments.” Baron Phillips, PR adviser
Tributes from today’s players
It is not just his old mates of the 60s, 70s and 80s who were keen to pay tribute. The bigwigs of today also praised his unique talent.
Robert Noel, chief executive of the UK’s largest property group Land Securities, said: “Irvine was one of the great characters of our industry and with The Shard, he has left us with one of its great iconic structures.”
Chris Grigg, chief executive of British Land, added: “Irvine achieved something quite exceptional with The Shard: one of London’s most enduring landmarks, which helped place south London firmly on the international map.”
Anthony Lorenz, founder of The Lorenz Consultancy, said Sellar was a commanding presence. “My big brother Bobby told me when I rst went into business, if you look around a boardroom table and you can’t see a mug, you’re it,” said Lorenz. “I felt just that every time I met Irvine. Instinctive genius. RIP Irvine.”
PR adviser Baron Phillips is another person who can attest to what a formidable force Sellar was. “He was probably the toughest person I ever worked with; really hard-nosed on fees and costs but at the same time the most loyal person I ever knew,” he said. “Once you were part of the ‘team’, he expected 120% dedication and commitment but you got his loyalty in return.
“Talking of commitment, he always used to ask an audience, especially over breakfast, if they knew the di erence between involvement and commitment. Looking down at their breakfast plates he would say: ‘The chicken was involved but the pig was committed.’
“There was no doubt he was the master of one-liners and always had a pithy and generally amusing response to any situation. When asked about his lack of traditional property experience/expertise, his response was that he was like a conductor of an orchestra of property professionals. ‘You wouldn’t expect the conductor to play all the instruments’.”
Sellar leaves a wife, three children and five grandchildren. His son James, who had worked alongside him for the past 20 years, will take over the running of Sellar Property Group.