A Canadian businessman recalls how, on a business trip to New York last fall, a Manhattan-born friend asked if he would like to see the spot "where there's a lot of Canadian money." "I thought he meant some hotel," said the businessman, who requested anonymity. "So we started walking and suddenly my friend points to the World Financial Center and says 'There it is.' And I thought, 'My God.' " In the world of real estate and development, few firms inspire more awe than Toronto-based Olympia & York Developments Ltd. And no developers maintain the aura of mystery more than its owners, the three Reichmann brothers, Albert, 60, Paul, 58, and Ralph, 56. Now, the Reichmanns may be on the verge of taking control of another New York landmark -- the Bloomingdale's department store chain -- along with the other divisions of another Tornoto-based empire, Campeau Corp. Cash-strapped Campeau has turned to O&Y for a $250 million cash infusion to stave off default and provide needed operating funds. The investment could give the Reichmann brothers effective control of Campeau's retail and real estate empire. The brothers have a knack for buying in at the right time. Twelve years ago they bought eight Manhattan office buildings for $320 million. Today the properties are worth more than $3 billion and the brothers are the largest commercial landlords in Manhattan. Combined with multibillion-dollar real estate holdings in Canada, O&Y is the largest development company in North America. Fortune magazine estimates the Reichmanns' net worth at $8.4 billion, which would put them among the world's 10 richest people. But not all of their money is in real estate. The family has what the Canadian press estimates to be a $5.1 billion portfolio of holdings in other companies. They own, for example, controlling interests in Consumers' Gas Co. Ltd., the largest natural gas distribution utility in Canada; Gulf Canada Resources Ltd., the country's largest oil and gas company; and newsprint giant Abitibi-Price Inc. There is even a Washington connection to O&Y, through Trizec Corp. Ltd., which the Reichmanns control along with a branch of the equally wealthy Bronfman family of Canada. Trizec, in turn, owns 25 percent of the Rouse Co., of Columbia, Md., the largest publicly held real estate developer in the United States. O&Y is developing Canary Wharf, a $5.9 billion, 24-building project in London's east end that, if successful, will remake the skyline by adding to it Britain's first true skyscraper. Paul Reichmann, who manages O&Y's real estate development and finance (Albert manages day-to-day operations and Ralph runs a building supply division), is said to be negotiating with a consortium of Japanese companies to build an office development on islands in Tokyo Bay. That project, if it goes through, reportedly would be so large that it would dwarf the Canary Wharf development. The Reichmanns "are among the few people in the whole {of North America} who are dramatically strategic players. They take a long-term view and see a global picture of everything they're doing," said Edward S. Gordon, president of Edward S. Gordon Co. Inc. of New York, a large U.S. real estate leasing firm. "You just don't stop people like O&Y," the Canadian businessman adds. Nowhere has that observation been more emphatically confirmed than in the million-dollar libel suits the Reichmann brothers and their mother, Renee, brought last year against a Toronto journalist and Toronto Life magazine for an article about the origins of the family before and during World War II. After the Toronto Sun and the Globe and Mail, Toronto's two newspapers, reported on the article and the lawsuit, the Reichmanns filed million-dollar suits against the newspapers. Lawyers say it may be years before the lawsuits come to trial, but meanwhile few business people in Canada or the United States who are familiar with the Reichmann operations want to comment on them for attribution. "Everybody in Toronto is scared to death of these people," said another Canadian businessman. Much of what is known about the intensely private Reichmanns, in fact, has come out in the months after the Toronto Life report. The brothers were born in Vienna, after Renee and their father, the late Samuel Reichmann, fled there from Hungary in 1928. Ten years later, when Adolf Hitler's armies arrived, the family fled to France, then Spain, and finally to Morocco, where the brothers grew up, studying the Talmud. They emigrated to Canada and the United States in the 1950s. Paul Reichmann, in particular, has continued his Talmudic studies, and the family remains deeply religious. A widely repeated bit of Reichmann lore holds that the brothers insist that on their projects under construction, operations cease on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and all Jewish holidays. Despite their wealth, the brothers are said to be scrupulously honest in their business dealings. "If they say they're going to do it, it's a deal," said a Toronto analyst. But, he added, "you also have to make sure you understand exactly what the deal is."