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Tough wood gives Bermudian edge in US market

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Edge in the market: US-based Bermudian architect and businessman Andrew Outerbridge, right, with business partner Carter Sednaoui outside their factory in Guyana which produces roofing and siding made from tough local wood for the American market

A Bermudian architect turned entrepreneur is aiming to raise the roof in the US with a revolutionary new product.

Andrew Outerbridge, a former planning official with the Bermuda Government who is now based in New Jersey, has set up a factory in Guyana to produce building siding and shingles in a Guyanese wood tougher than traditional woods used in the US.

He hopes products from his company Walligna, made out of wallaba wood, will corner a lucrative slice of a market estimated to be worth $12 billion a year in America alone.

The company’s factory in Guyana, employing 35 people and using hi-tech machinery specially designed for the job, has started production.

Mr Outerbridge, 61, who also runs his own architectural practice Outerbridge Morgan, said he started looking for alternatives to western red cedar and western white cedar for siding and shingles because he reckoned they were not good enough to justify the cost.

“Being a strong believer in natural products rather plastics or composites, I started looking for alternatives,” he said.

And, when the sub-prime mortgage crisis of the late 2000s sparked the worldwide recession, it also hit the architecture profession in the US. As a result he looked around for other business opportunities.

Mr Outerbridge added: “We’ve taken a product that is already established and created a manufacturing facility which is state of the art producing products designed for the American market.”

He explained that the dense hardwood wallaba has been used in Guyana as a roofing material for centuries — but it extremely hard to cut and so he set out to create new machinery able to produce building materials on an industrial scale.

Mr Outerbridge, who has lived in the US for more than two decades but still spends around a third of his time in Bermuda, said: “It’s a $12 billion market in the US — all we need is one or two per cent of that and, knowing we’re producing a product significantly better than the competition, it’s a matter of refining the production process to enable us to meet demand.

“We have a sustainability approach and an environmentally conscious approach — we’re working in a sustainable way with regard to harvesting.”

Mr Outerbridge admitted that setting up a Guyanese subsidiary of his US-based company had been a struggle due to the South American country’s developing world status and reputation for corruption in government.

He said: “I know I am paying more for my material resources, but I know there is no lying about it. It’s a new business, new challenges and a Third World environment.

“It’s a value-added product. We employ a lot of people in Guyana and make this product in a country where the government is struggling to keep its people employed.”

And he added that his company had taken “forthright and honest business practices” and insisted on playing it by the book in Guyana.

Wallaba wood is hard and strong and even fire-resistant due to its density — which Mr Outerbridge said was an important selling point in many areas of the US, like wildfire-prone California.

“It puts us in a well-defined category for fire rating and will last three times the time that a western red cedar product would last — 75 years compared to 20 or 25 and that’s being conservative,” he said.

“There are roofs made out of wallaba which are more than 100 years old.

“And once it goes on a roof and ages naturally it looks exactly like western red cedar’s silver grey look.”

Mr Outerbridge added that his wallaba products had got a boost from hit TV show and magazine This Old House, which selected Walligna from a field of thousands for its top 100 new building products for this year.

He said: “It’s a huge nod to your credibility as a product. They sift through thousands and thousands of products and only pick 100.”

Mr Outerbridge partnered with Carter Sednaoui, the former chief executive officer of Accel, the firm which took Facebook public, in the new venture, as well as a sleeping partner, who supplied much of the finance.

He added that the firm has signed a deal with US distribution company FLW.

Mr Outerbridge said: “They’re the largest supplier of cedar and PVC fencing in the east of the United States — they will be the major distributors in the US with a vision of this becoming a global product.”

He said that, although he has lived in the US for more than 20 years, he spends around a third of his time in Bermuda and still carries out architectural work on the Island for clients.

Top cut: A worker processes Wallaba wood in Walligna's factory in Guyana