Architect's success story grew out of tough choices

Argo's business continues to grow across different time zones
Architect's success story grew out of tough choices

David Campion.

During these chilly weeks of January, many Irish thoughts turn toward warmer climes and the idea of beach life in those fantasy islands closer the equator. 

For David Campion, such daydreaming is now a reality as he blends an enviable sunshine lifestyle with an architectural business that continues to expand and grow across different time zones. 

Like many success stories, however, Argo Development Studio grew out of tough choices and hard work. 

Having joined the architectural firm Murray Ó Laoire shortly after college, he worked at the firm’s Dublin office for over a decade. 

“Sean Ó Laoire was a very inspirational individual and a great mentor,” he recalled of the company‘s founding director and a former president of the RIAI. 

In 2010, the opportunity that would change David’s life arrived in the form of a major project the firm had won in the Caribbean. 

“It was decided that someone from the Dublin office should relocate to that part of the world for a year and set up an office, both to manage the project at hand, as well as the prospect of chasing up new business.” 

After talking it over with his wife Edel, the couple and their three small children decided to grab what seemed the chance of a lifetime. 

Looking back, it was an upheaval, but it seemed an adventure too good to pass up.

However, then, just as the family were barely finding their feet in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Caribbean, the recession back home claimed another victim in the form of Ireland’s best-known architectural firm, Murray Ó Laoire, with the loss of more than 120 jobs. 

The firm admitted to being “unable to meet its financial obligations as a result of cumulative bad debts and increasing difficulties in getting paid on time, or at all”. 

It delivered the ultimate of career wake-up calls for David and his family.

“We had only been in Barbados for three months when Murray Ó Laoire went into liquidation, but even in that short space of time we had gotten a feel for the place,” he said. 

The time difference between Barbados and Ireland allows for 15-hour work days.
The time difference between Barbados and Ireland allows for 15-hour work days.

Determined to cope with the unexpected circumstance, he followed his instincts and decided to set up a fledgling practice. 

“Argo is an architectural practice specialising in digital construction. We use a process called BIM — building information modelling — which allows us to design, cost and construct buildings in a virtual environment before they ever get to a site.

"These digital twins of buildings that we create allow us to deliver more intelligent structures, designed to be more resilient, safer, more sustainable and to realise savings of up to 20% over conventional means.”

Within the first six months of setting up, the company had secured work with Digicel, Virgin, Radisson, Marriott, and Sandals. 

Currently with offices in Dublin, Barbados, the Grenadines, Dominica, and Jamaica, the firm employs a team of 43. They are currently managing live projects in 13 countries, including Bermuda international airport, and a number of hospitality projects in Barbados and Dominica. 

In 2015, the Argo Centre of Technical Expertise was established in Dublin offering the Irish construction industry access to a standard 15-hour working day — thanks to the time difference between Dublin and Barbados. 

“We opened our Dublin office with the support of Enterprise Ireland, and are currently working on several multi-unit residential schemes in Blackrock and Dalkey while also working with Henry J Lyons and Metropolitan Workshop on high profile commercial and large-scale mixed-use buildings in Dublin and the surrounding regions.”

Hospitality sector

Fifty per cent of the company’s work in the Caribbean is in the hospitality sector, working with brands such as Marriott, Park Hyatt, Sandals, Radisson, Fort Young, Secret Bay and Apes Hill.

 “Our other work includes infrastructure projects such as Bermuda international airport, working with the World Health Organisation, smart hospitals for Pan American Health Organisation and the Maria Holder Schools programme. 

"Master planning projects include a new 300-acre sustainable town outside Georgetown, Guyana.

We expect hospitality to continue to strengthen into 2021 and on as pent-up demand increases. 

While admitting that part of the charm of Barbados and the Caribbean is the laid-back nature of its warm and friendly people, the attributes that ARGO looks for in new hires do not change based on location.

“Our Barbados team and teams around the Caribbean share the same traits as our Dublin team — talented ambitious professionals with a strong work ethic and great problem-solving capabilities. 

"I am demanding to work for, but I let our team know this up front, hence why we interview four times. 

Trust plays a huge role in managing team and it needs to be earned from both sides.

Travel restrictions, the challenges of not been able to visit projects and lack of personal contact with clients are part of the Covid-19 fallout the firm continues to cope with, and which have tested its digital infrastructure and senior management to step up to the plate to become country leaders. 

But, as 2021 brings the prospect of a more settled world, David looks to new operational horizons with confidence. 

“We will continue to break new territories in Jamaica, Guyana, Aruba, and also grow our market share in existing territories including Ireland," says David.

"In addition, we will continue to invest in the training and software and hardware required to be an industry leader in digital construction.” 

Progressive

Based in Barbados, David has the benefit of viewing his native shore from a distance: “Ireland is certainly seen as a progressive first world country from the Caribbean. Its strength in pharmaceutical and IT is well known, and the view here it is that Ireland is expected to rebound next year and to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world.” 

And while the Campion family continue to make their home in that territory of warm breezes and glorious sunsets, the lure of home is never too far from their minds. 

“A few years ago I undertook a project of the heart to rescue a schoolhouse falling to ruin in Leitrim, on a mountain-top overlooking Lough Allen.” 

Maintaining the exterior of the house to reflect its history, he converted the interior as an example of low-energy luxury living. 

“In normal times, I take the family there whenever we are home, in summer and at Christmas. It’s important for us to have it.”

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