Changing face of Bermuda



Changing face of Bermuda
Changing face of Bermuda
Building Bermuda looks
at the impact of OBM
International as the
firm celebrates its
75th anniversary
hen Bermudians stop looking over their shoulders at
the rest of the world and
accept the fact that they have the
potential to be global examples,
something extraordinary happens.
There are many examples of this
phenomenon over the past four
centuries, but few more compelling
than the contribution that the architectural firm of Onions, Bouchard &
McCulloch (better known now as
OBM International Ltd) has made
over the past 75 years.
From a two-man office in pre-war
Hamilton, the firm has expanded into
an international conglomerate with
offices in London, Brussels, Madrid,
Miami and several islands in the
Senior partner Colin Campbell says
it has been a case of taking advantage
of the ability to think locally — and the
courage to act globally. That alone
doesn’t take into account the remarkable individuals who have come from
all over the world during the past 75
years to make their priceless and sometimes controversial contribution.
Bermudian Wilfred ‘Wil’ Onions
sowed the first seed when he persuaded
Valmer ‘Val’ Bouchard, his French
Canadian fellow student at McGill
University, that when they had survived
their apprenticeship under the British
architect Sir Edward Lutyens in
London, they should set up shop
in Bermuda.
The date was 1936, when the world
was in global economic depression and
politically marching to the drumbeat of
war, but the two young men’s heads
were full of the quiet country homes
and elegant estates that were the stuff
of a Lutyen’s design education.
Mr Onions had travelled in Europe
in 1933 on a student scholarship where
OBM International Ltd’s senior partner Colin Campbell: ‘I have always thought great
businesses are made by great people, and not the other way round’
he maintained journals and sketch
drawings of all the interesting buildings
he visited. Many of these experiences
made a lasting impression on Mr
Onions and helped shape his later
architectural development. Fortunately,
while in Britain, he had also noted the
many similarities between cottages of
the Cotswolds and his beloved
Bermuda cottages. This was to have a
marked bearing on the future of
Bermudian architecture.
After a Bermuda apprenticeship
of a year and a half with landscape
artist Lawrence Smart, Mr Onions
and Mr Bouchard set out on their own.
There was some competition in
Bermuda, most of it local and limited
in global experience.
The men’s university education,
professional training in Britain and
sense of style and elegance, provided a
new and imaginative approach to the
development of Bermuda architecture
using traditional forms and materials
integrated with modern design and
innovative materials. Although capable
to design large estates such as The
Parapet in Sandys, much of the early
works were small cottages, additions
and retail shops. Each new commission
piece was imbued with a particular style
and charm. The office was busy enough
right up to the start of the war.
The war years required the partners
to provide public service as the few
commissions available were few and far
between. When the war was finally
The Burnaby Street extension to Butterfield Bank proved a great boost to the
design practice’s commercial business
over, Bermuda had to scramble to find
a new identity; swept away were the
agricultural economy, cedar forests and
the Bermuda Railway.
A new economy based on tourism
and the start of international offshore
business demanded a new development
direction. Mr Onions and Mr
Bouchard found the tastes of their
clients had also changed — now they
wanted electricity, indoor plumbing,
garages for their cars, kitchens as part
of the living space without butler’s
pantries, built in closets, etc. In the rush
for everything new, they also realised, as
never before, the unique charm of
Bermuda architecture.
Responding to the clients’
wishes for modern tastes with old
world charm, they created a simple
rational design approach for a new
generation that became known as
“Bermuda Style.”
In response to a call in 1948 for
affordable housing, the Bermuda
Historical Monuments Trust (later
the National Trust) published
“Bermuda Cottage Plans,” an outline
guide for several design options as
well as recommended modernisations
of traditional structures.
Along with Bayfield Clark,
Lawrence Smart, C W Abbot and C E
Hinson Couper, Mr Onions submitted
a working man’s simple cottage house
design to the portfolio. Compared to
the other designers, the Mr Onions
design is very modern in layout but
retaining classic Bermuda architecture
proportions and style. This style translated well for high-end projects as well,
starting with “But ’N Ben” in Tucker’s
Town, and a series of houses built for
the Trimingham family in Paget,
with arguably the best of these being
Woodstock Cove.
But there was something missing in
the Onions and Bouchard armoury and
they were smart enough to know that
they were not qualified to supply it —
a commercial portfolio.
With Bermuda expanding after the
war into a major hotel resort and commercial centre, it was a serious void,
and they advertised overseas for an
associate with commercial architectural
skills. Enter, in 1953, a young, confident Scottish architect John McCulloch, and, as Mr Campbell puts it:
“It changed the game beyond all
Although hailing from Scotland,
Mr McCulloch had had previous work
experience in the Caribbean, a region
he loved with passion. Returning from
the Caribbean, he had applied for two
jobs, one in South Africa and one in
Bermuda. Whichever employer replied
first he would accept, thus Bermuda
won out.
The brash newcomer applied himself right away with the Burnaby Street
extension for the Bank of Butterfield.
Mr McCulloch’s considerable skill and
quick execution of works gained the
attention of the business community.
Bacardi International’s Bermuda head
office was another OBM development
Soon the commercial side of the practice was over taking the traditional residential works. Within a few years his
considerable skills and business acumen
recommended him to be invited to be a
partner, thus the firm gained its familiar moniker, Onions, Bouchard &
In 1957, Onions, Bouchard &
McCulloch was awarded the design
commission of the Hamilton City Hall,
based on Mr Onions’ design sketches.
Built with Bermuda stone walls, roof
slate and cedar, this structure was one
of the largest and last major structures
built in Bermuda using a substantial
quantity of native materials.
The design addressed many of the
Corporation’s immediate needs and was
fashioned in part after the impressive
Stockholm City Hall, Mr Onions had
seen and thoroughly sketched and studied while on his student travels in 1933.
The project required a large office and
the close coordination with many wellknown local designers working with the
firm — C W Abbot and Lawrence
Smart, Bayfield Clark and William
Harrington among others.
This period was also the high water
point of Mr Onions’ “Bermuda Style”
residential design approach, but times
were changing again and newer materials — popular rakish designs of steel
and glass — were challenging the
native charm and simplicity of the
traditional “Bermuda Style.”
Caught in the crossfire of changing
In 1957, Onions, Bouchard & McCulloch were awarded the design commission of the Hamilton City Hall (left). The design
addressed many of the Corporation’s immediate needs and was fashioned in part after the impressive Stockholm City Hall
times, changing tastes and challenging
clients, Mr Onions, at 50 years old, suffered profound depression and died in
August 1959. The Hamilton City Hall
was officially opened in February 1960.
After a period of reflection following his death, the firm gathered its
strength and moved forward. Mr
Bouchard continued to manage and
grow the local business trade, and
designed many fine and elegant homes
for the next decade and more until his
retirement in the 1970s.
During this period many new and
innovative structures were designed
locally and with overseas consultants
including the Bank of Bermuda head
office and Church Street Branch, Bacardi International’s head office, American International Group, Bermuda Fire
and Marine Head office, the Bermuda
Bakery office building, St Patrick’s
Church, The Southampton Princess
and additions to The Hamilton
Princess, etc.
Though firmly based in Bermuda,
Mr McCulloch also saw opportunities
for the firm to grow in the Caribbean
in the wake of other pioneering
Bermuda companies and clients.
Following a residential commission in
Tortola, British Virgin Islands, he
established the first of many Caribbean
head offices, with Grand Cayman
soon following.
Works in St Kitts, St Maarten,
Turks and Caicos required offices, but
these were one-man operations that
were loosely connected by post, telephone and Mr McCulloch’s regular
travel schedule, checking in with the
outpost offices.
Returning from university in 1966,
Retaining classic Bermuda architecture
proportions and style, a number of
houses were built for the Trimingham
family in Paget, one of these being
Woodstock Cove
B W “Jordy” Walker, nephew of Wil
Onions, joined the firm. He had spent
his summer holidays working in the
firm, and with his brother built the
model of the Hamilton City Hall. Now
qualified and ready, Mr Walker tackled
any job handed to him with care and
efficiency. A keen sailor, he applied the
life lessons of the sea to the passion and
energies required of his work. Often
when the smaller offices were desperate
for back up, it was Mr Walker who was
volunteered to assist and man the office
until replacements could be found. Just
such a person was William “Bill” Bissell.
In 1971 Mr Bissell was hired to
manage the Cayman office. Raised and
educated in Newcastle, he had immigrated to Canada in search of a fresh
start. Mr Bissell and a fellow architect
friend were working in a Toronto
architectural firm. Both had applied
and had been accepted by John
McCulloch to work for the firm. At
the flip of a coin one went to Bermuda,
the other went to Cayman.
Grand Cayman in the early 1970s
was a very simple and quiet place
indeed, looking to expand into global
finance. Noting the immediate lack of
client base, Mr Bissell would complete
his day’s work by noon and then head
for the airport, where he would look for
travelling businessmen. Offering to
take them into Georgetown, he would
discover the nature of their business
and immediately offer his services to
assist them with a house, office or
building design. Mr Bissell quickly
built the fortunes of the Cayman office.
Retiring in the early 1970s, Valmer
Bouchard maintained an office and
presence in the firm until his death in
1979. Mr McCulloch was now the
senior partner, and although both Mr
Walker and Mr Bissell were substantial
junior partners, the firm was still very
much under Mr McCulloch’s leadership direction.
Expanding into interior design,
Ruth Burgess joined the firm and built
up this side of the commercial business.
Very successful, she too was offer partBUILDINGBERMUDA
nership and was a very strong presence
for the firm. By offering shares, Mr
McCulloch did something quite unlike
his business peers — he advanced
women into leadership positions. It was
not his intention to deliberately break
glass ceilings, he just saw new adventures and had the courage to act and
give the right person a chance to thrive.
Another adventurer is Tim Peck
who joined the Tortola BVI office in
1981 and steadily built a name for
beautiful residential structures. In the
1970s and 1980s, Mr McCulloch ably
guided the firm through the periods of
enormous global tumult including the
1973 Arab oil embargo, the period
of hyperinflation (18 percent-plus),
Thatcherism; Reaganism; the fall of the
Iron Curtain and Communism.
Closer to home the changes were no
less dramatic with civil disturbances
and riots, the murder of Governor
Sharples and the subsequent riots that
ensued after the conviction and death
of the two convicted men; the hotel
work stoppages; and the enormous
expansion of the tourism and later
international business sectors.
By the early 1990s it was clear that
the wonderful energy of Mr McCulloch had blown its course and a new
leadership structure and direction for
the company was needed. For an
interim period Ruth Burgess ran the
firm, before retiring in 1993. B W
Jordy Walker and Mr Bissell assumed
the leadership of the firm.
Not content to constrain the firm’s
growth to Bermuda and the Caribbean,
Jordy and Bill set out to create a truly
international firm, first by rebranding
the firm name from Onions Bouchard
and McCulloch to OBM International;
then to encourage personal achievement in the firm, the partnership was
dissolved and a share ownership company was created to offer opportunities
to the many enthusiastic employees also
looking to expand their horizons; then
in 1995 they decided to move the company headquarters from Bermuda to
Miami to take advantage of the close
proximity of that international city to
clients and future business contacts. In
1998 the transition was nearly complete; however along the way they met
a group of young architects in Miami
with a broader sense of the development opportunities the world had to
share. True to the OBM mold, this new
group of adventurers created the OBM
Miami design office, focusing on resort
and hotel properties. Locally OBM
senior Interior Designer Michele Smith
was promoted by Jordy Walker to be
Managing Director of the Bermuda
office, another glass ceiling broken.
Later in 1998, Colin Campbell
came on the scene, merging his own
firm with OBM and working closely
The Bank of Bermuda head office was
one of many new and innovative
structures designed locally and with
overseas consultants
with Michele Smith. The new team
now faced the challenge of what has
turned out to be a difficult new century
by making the most of Michele’s and
Colin’s right brain, left brain management approach. The primary challenge
for the Bermuda office in 1999 was
assessing growth potential in a completive market place — and managing costs.
“Our first task was to effect major
cuts in our operational overheads by
bringing all non-architectural services
being carried out around the world
under one roof,” he says.
“This outsourcing is centered in
OBM Administration — Miami,
where we have a major office, and I am
happy to report the project has worked
extremely well for all the offices. We
now operate in Bermuda, Miami,
Cayman, British Virgin Islands,
Antigua Trinidad & Tobago, Madrid,
Bogota and Abu Dhabi.
“Now we are moving into the next
development phase, creating our
“Cloud network” for all of our offices in
which all our leading edge software and
systems will be backed up and our data
stored at a single source, rather than
individual servers linked at the various
offices. It’s a huge task but we know it
has to be done if we are to remain globally competitive.”
Commenting on the effects of the
current recession to the company’s
bottom line, Mr Campbell adds:
“Obviously the global flows of money
affect OBM tremendously, and it had
been galling to see so many great projects that we have been working on,
stopped in their tracks. Unfortunately,
as far as Bermuda in particular is concerned, the construction industry was
still caught in the downturn and it is
hard to see an immediate light at the
end of the tunnel. Yet Bermuda commerce has many similar tales to the
conditions in which we find ourselves
today. The challenge is that we have the
same wisdom of our forefathers to
change with the times and create new
opportunities as they did.
“However, we at OBMI are 75 years
wise. We started in the Great Depression in 1936 and look where we went
from there.
“I have always thought great businesses are made by great people, and
not the other way round. So we will
change again and evolve as we should,
but fundamentally we are known for
being good at what we do. That’s
enabled us to survive some pretty hard
knocks over years, and I cannot see us
altering our mantra now.”
‘We will change again and evolve as we should, but fundamentally we are known for
being good at what we do. That’s enabled us to survive some pretty hard knocks
over years, and I cannot see us altering our mantra now’