Benjamin Torchinsky, engineer, entrepreneur and developer of the Grand Cayman Hyatt Britannia Resort, passed away in Miami on Dec. 23. He was 87.
A much-loved personage in Grand Cayman for decades, Ben, along with his wife Sarah who predeceased him in 2009, were well known on the island, not only for the resort that they built, but also for their contributions, especially in the arts, and generosity to many causes and individuals. Although inveterate world travelers, they considered the Cayman Islands their home.
Born on September 24, 1926 in Calgary, Alberta, the son of Max and Rose Torchinsky, Ben’s affinity for engineering began in his youth when he took advantage of the many opportunities offered by his father’s used parts business for creative improvisation, like building a motorized bicycle from a washing machine engine. His career in civil engineering began with a stint as a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, where he was privileged to teach many returning veterans the principles of civil engineering and particularly the emerging field of soil mechanics, which was Ben’s passion.
Teaching gave way to Ben’s desire to put geotechnical theories into practice. He began with Torchinsky Consulting, which soon morphed into Western Caissons, specializing in state-of-the-art geotechnical work in heavy foundations. As the business grew across the country, Ben’s belief in good people and good ideas and the need to take a risk on both came to the fore. He moved his thriving engineering company into new and diversified fields, under the banner of Agra Industries, and became a pioneer in vegetable oil processing, cable TV, medical diagnostics and recycling.
“I came from Western Canada,” Ben said. “I believed in being diversified. I’ve grown up in a country where the main economic strength depended entirely on farming, and if there was a good crop year, it was good for everybody, and if there was a poor crop year, it was bad for everybody.”
The engineering core of the business continued to be Ben’s passion, and it grew to encompass many major projects worldwide. Agra contributed to the design and construction of rapid transit systems in Vancouver and Washington, D.C.; the Three Gorges dam in China; the Hibernia, Sable Island and Terra Nova oil and gas projects off Canada’s East Coast; the Alliance gas pipeline in Western Canada and the U.S. Midwest; Highway 407 in Ontario; the Diavik diamond mine in the Northwest Territories; and the building of nuclear reactors for South Korea. By the mid-1990s Agra’s reach had expanded to employ 6,500 people in 24 countries.
In the 1980s, Ben became personally involved in Agra’s development of the Hyatt Britannia project, Grand Cayman’s first truly luxury resort and residential community.
With the merger of Agra and U.K.-based AMEC in 2000, Ben retired from one business only to keep on pursuing many more as a mentor or active partner. He traveled frequently to the U.K. to promote Seacore, a marine construction company involved in building offshore wind farms in Europe. As a resident of Grand Cayman, he became the trusted partner to many local entrepreneurs.
Ben and Sarah loved art and music. They helped to support many artists and music societies, beginning in Saskatoon when Ben was an engineering professor and continuing in the other cities where his business took them.
Ben’s awards for his engineering accomplishments included the 1997 Sir John Kennedy Medal from the Engineering Institute of Canada, the 2001 Beaubien Award presented by the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada and an Honorary Doctorate in 2003 from his alma mater, the University of Alberta.
Ben’s most treasured recognition came from the many young engineers and entrepreneurs whom he mentored throughout his life. If there is a fitting epitaph, it is in Ben’s own words: “I really got a kick out of helping someone with an idea, who could make it into something worthwhile. If it worked, the whole thing was a lot of fun and very satisfying. And that works out to a good life.”
Ben leaves his sister Ethel Wiss; two sons, Alan and Raymon; two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Christine; and four grandchildren, Miriam, Joseph, Abraham and Sasha. He will be buried beside Sarah in the West Bay Cemetery. Ceremonies will be held at 11 am, Tuesday, at the cemetary.