Brian Uzzell, longtime owner and publisher of Cayman Compass, passes on at 82

Brian Uzzell, pictured here in 2011, first became involved in the newspaper business in 1974 when he was invited to do a feasibility study on the Caymanian Weekly, which eventually became the Cayman Compass. - Photo: Stephen Clarke

Brian Uzzell, who spent 40 years in the Cayman Islands newspaper business and was former owner of the Cayman Compass, died Friday following a long illness. He was 82.

Mr. Uzzell died at a home he owned in Pembroke Pines, Florida.

“There is much we could talk about with regards to our father,” said son Justin Uzzell. “He was an entrepreneur, a publisher, an actor (for those who remember ‘The Cayman Triangle’), however, the outpouring of sentiment at his passing speaks volumes of the worlds he touched and this is the measure of his success.

RELATED EDITORIAL – A personal remembrance of Brian Uzzell

“The love of those in Cayman, and beyond, pays homage to Dad. He was a pioneer in the history of the Cayman Islands, publishing being his passion. He managed his company, Cayman Free Press, more as a family than a corporate entity. There are many beyond our family that feel they too have lost a loved one, and we thank them all for their kind words and wishes. Dad would be humbled.”

Born in Derby, England, Brian Uzzell began working in the field of marketing at the age of 16.

In 1969, he took a marketing and public relations job in the Bahamas. Disturbed by the rise in crime as the country moved toward independence, Mr. Uzzell planned a move to the United States in 1972, but was sidetracked by a job offer in the Cayman Islands. He said he initially planned to stay for two years.

In 1974, he was asked to do a feasibility study on the deeply in-debt Caymanian Weekly newspaper. Based on his analysis, Mr. Uzzell recommended shutting the operation down. Instead, the company’s board of directors asked Mr. Uzzell to run the operation.

He managed to turn the finances of the paper around and eventually became the major shareholder in the company. Along the way, the newspaper, renamed the Caymanian Compass, went from a weekly to twice-weekly and then to the current five-day publication schedule.

Brian Uzzell at his 80th birthday party in 2016, with his daughter-in-law Lydia and son Justin. – Photo: Jewel Levy

Cayman’s population was just 10,000 when Mr. Uzzell arrived on the island. He once said in an interview that he enjoyed getting to know everyone in the community.

“Media is all about people,” he said in a 2008 interview. “One has to like them, find good in them and sympathize with their causes in order to impact their life and culture. Through media, you can do it all.”

Mr. Uzzell had no qualms about taking a tempered approach to his coverage of the islands’ news. He did not like the idea of confronting politicians and public figures with hard questions.

“I’d far rather talk to them, point out certain factions that were not necessarily good for the country and try to get some sort of compromise before putting it in print,” he said. “Part of my approach was to always cut out sensationalism.”

Former Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts said Mr. Uzzell took his role seriously.

“I think he felt a heavy responsibility, as the primary print media in the country, to make sure what he presented to the Cayman public was as accurate as possible,” he said.

Though the two men had competing businesses – Mr. Tibbetts ran Prestige Printers – they got along well and even helped one another out on occasion, Mr. Tibbetts said.

Brian Uzzell, Jan. 29, 1936 – Nov. 30, 2018

“My relationship with Brian was such that if he gave me his word, or I gave him my word, we lived by that,” he said. “I held him in high esteem on a personal level.”

In 1992, Mr. Uzzell branched out and bought the Lighthouse restaurant with two other partners. One of those partners, Giuseppe Gatta, called Mr. Uzzell a friend and mentor.

“He was like a father to me,” Mr. Gatta said. “He was always motivating me. He had a big heart and was very generous.”

He said he often turned to Mr. Uzzell for guidance and recalled one particular piece of advice he received.

“Always do your business with your heart,” he said Mr. Uzzell told him. “If you don’t have your heart in the business, you can’t do it.”

Business was good at the Lighthouse until Hurricane Ivan hit in 2004. The restaurant and the Compass were both badly damaged. The paper had to be printed in Jamaica for several months before the production plant in Cayman was up and running again. The fallout hit the staff hard.

“One of the most painful moments in my entire career here was having to just say to more than two-thirds of my staff, ‘I can’t employ you at the moment,’” he recalled in 2008.

Longtime Compass employee Jewel Levy said she remembers Mr. Uzzell crying that day. Despite being laid off, some came and helped clean up the damage to the newspaper offices. As business picked up, Mr. Uzzell rehired most of those he’d had to let go.

“We all gradually came back together,” she said, adding that Mr. Uzzell inspired loyalty from his employees, some of whom worked for him for as long as 50 years.

Often, he was like a father to her and other employees, she said, likening the workplace atmosphere to that of a big family led by Mr. Uzzell.

“Anything about your home life, your work life, if you needed money or you were sick, you could run to him,” she said, confident that he would help out.

“He worked very hard,” she added. “He was here at the crack of dawn. At one time, he was running the office, writing the paychecks. He was doing everything single-handedly. He loved the Compass and he loved the people of Cayman.”

In 2008, Mr. Uzzell was awarded the Cayman Islands Certificate and Badge of Honour for his contributions to media in Cayman. He received the award at an official pinning ceremony the following year.

When he was not working, Mr. Uzzell played hard. An avid sports fan, he also played and was frequently involved in managing the rugby, cricket and field hockey teams he was on.

Brian Uzzell at the newspaper printing press.

Chris Johnson, who runs the financial service that bears his name in Cayman, said he played hockey and cricket with Mr. Uzzell for 20 years.

“It was his inspiring and infectious sense of humor on the fields of play for what I remember him the most,” Mr. Johnson said. “The two of us would joke together on the field. He didn’t take the game too seriously.”

It was on the hockey field that he had a personal setback in 2010, suffering a heart attack during play. He underwent bypass surgery and, as a result, cut back on the hours he was devoting to the Compass. In 2013, he sold the paper, several magazines and other media properties to David and Vicki Legge.

In a 2012 interview, Mr. Uzzell said he had no regrets.

“I’ve enjoyed all my life, every second of it,” he said. “I’ve had a wonderful life here and I’m very appreciative of Cayman.”

Mr. Uzzell is survived by his sons Jason, Julien, Justin and Simon; his partner Andrea Wong Sam; daughters-in-law Claire, Lydia and Shelley; grandchildren Lauren, Holly, Abbie, Emily and Alexander; niece Lesley Leverett; and great grandsons Oscar and Harrison Callaghan.

If you value our service, if you have turned to us in the past few days or weeks for verified, factual updates, if you have watched our live streaming of press conferences or sent an article to a friend... please consider a donation. Quality local journalism was at risk before the coronavirus crisis. It is now deeply threatened. Even a small amount can go a long way to sustaining our mission of informing the public. We need our readers’ financial support now more than ever.