Building to last

The Reef

This week I am back in Cayman and, for the first time in a long time, am staying at The Reef Resort, this the view from my room at sunrise as I awake on my first morning here.

It is an odd feeling to be here, not simply Cayman, where I have spent most of my adult life, but to this resort that I have such a long association with, dating back well over twenty years to when it was only an idea. This has me ponder on:

What do we create in our work and do we truly build to last?

You can’t go home again

I moved to Cayman in 1989 and many years later moved to London in 2017. So, along with Scotland (where I was born and lived over half of my first 24 years), Cayman is always “home” to me.

Thomas Wolfe titled his famous novel “you can’t go home again” and it is indeed a mix of feelings each time I am back in Cayman.

Home is a feeling to me, not a place, and so quite ephemeral to describe. What I can say this morning as I write is that there is this range of feelings in me being here and they could have me feeling a little off-centre. However, being here at a place that was built to last gives me a feeling of solidity and foundation.

Building a resort to last 

Some things are not ephemeral like how Thomas Wolfe wrote of “home”, some are solid and tangible, strongly built, built to last.

This resort, these buildings, this room I am writing in, this chair and table I sit at, these are tangible. As part of the ownership and development group of the resort, I remember the original business idea emerging back in the mid 1990s, then the business model, the designs with the architects, the furniture and fabric choices for the chair I am sitting on as I write, the construction process, then finally opening the rooms to guests.

At this moment I feel proud that the quality of the furniture in this room is such that, over 12 years on, it all still looks and feels almost as new and will be here many more years, despite the resort being oceanfront and the salt air always looking to corrode and age the buildings and the furniture.

So, as I sit here with these different feelings in me of being “home” in Cayman, I am also anchored by my part in creating this place and that it was built to last.

This resort is built to a standard that is built to last, it is and always has been well maintained to support that, yet at the heart of it, it was built to last.

Building a home to last

In 2008 I also completed construction on a home in Cayman that was, similarly, built to last. Some of that is in the design (designed to be classic and relatively timeless, not to the latest architectural fashion), much of it was hidden within the structure. On an island that is always in range of Hurricanes, it still stuns me how rarely people truly design and build homes to last.

However, even with the oh-so-solid structure of that home, it is now ten years old. I have had it on the market to sell for a while now. Large homes do typically take time to sell in Cayman, but the agent has had feedback from buyers that it is “old”.

Gosh, a ten-year-old house is thought to be “old” now. I almost laugh at that idea, that our culture is so disposable, fashion-oriented etc that everything has to be shiny and new, even if that then leads businesses to build to deteriorate. There is even a term for it, “built in obsolescence”. As an example, I am an Apple user for many years. I know Steve Jobs would be so disappointed that his company has shifted from designing and engineering products to last to one where they fully expected users to dispose of their laptops and phones within two years. Oh, and I mean dispose, as they are designed that they can’t be rehabilitated and passed on to other users. No longer built to last.

As for me, I grew up in an ancient country with a sense in my Scots family that an “old” building is one that is hundreds of years old, not ten. One home we lived in was “not even 100 years old” but has solid sandstone walls that were 28 inches (70 cm) thick. Good insulation for the winter!

I also grew up at a time that people aspired to own antique furniture (when antique meant over 100 years old) and to have it for everyday use, as the artisanship, the quality, the permanence of the construction meant it was built to last. My grandparents had such prized possessions and I remember, as a child, sitting in a child-sized chair that my father and grandfather had sat in before me at the same age. Even as a young child it registered strongly in me to build to last, as well as to respect and honour what had been created in this way.

So, I know the home I built will indeed find the right new owner, someone who not only has vision to see and understand the value in the design, location and style of the house, but also someone who truly value a home for their family that was built to last, to stand the test of time. It won’t be bought by someone wanting new for the sake of new, someone wanting the latest fashion in architecture, it will be bought by someone who knows it has been built to last. Oh, and that also includes hidden design features and structure beneath the service that both “future-proof” it for new technologies and, important in Cayman, to stand up to a major hurricane with nary a scratch !

What do we “build” that will last?

So, in our work, what do we “build” that will last?

Sometimes our work has us lead in creating things that are physical, are tangible, such as this resort. Do we choose to build them to last or do we build them to be used up and discarded?

When I started my career businesses and their leaders had a very limited sense of their impact on the planet, still less a sense of their responsibilities to it. Now we have the UN Sustainable Development Goals and sustainability is such a common phrase, we all know that building to last is leadership for the planet and more and more leaders look to do so.

I had the good fortune of working with a family business who were the ownership group for this resort. They simply would not build anything here that was not built to last, so that aligned with my own values and beliefs.

Beyond the physical and tangible, what else can we build to last?

I moved on from being part of this resort many years ago and have pride that the physical structure remains strong and “built to last”. yet my proudest moment coming back here this week was not that. It was when I arrived after 11pm to check in, and as I was checking in the night maintenance man came into the lobby and, only seeing the back of my head, called out “Mr Tom!” and came to greet me with a huge smile!

It was wonderful to see someone who has built their career to last at the resort. Even more than that, I played a part there in building a culture that was built to last, so though many staff change in such places, every staff member, new and old, that I have seen has that smile, that happiness in what they do, that feeling of warmth and being of service that we all worked so hard to create back in the early days of the resort.

It truly is heart-warming to see evidence that all the years of focus on building a culture has truly been something that we built to last, and I look forward to a breakfast tomorrow with three of the long term senior management here, and grateful that they were excited to see me when they heard I was coming to visit. It really does “fill my cup” to know I have made a little difference to people in my work.

So, I leave you with some questions.

Do you build to last? Why (or why not)?

If you do build to last, what does that mean to you?

How do you measure that you have built to last? 

Thanks for reading my musings today from the Cayman oceanfront





Also published on Medium.

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