100 years of excellence | The story of HG Christie Ltd

On the threshold of celebrating its 100th year as The Bahamas’ oldest and most extensive real estate company, the family-run HG Christie Ltd is credited with helping put The Bahamas on the map as a premier second home and private investment location.

The 200-plus year Bahamian chapter of the Christie family’s story started in 1790 when Scottish Loyalist Adam Christie – then spelt Chrystie – was appointed Colonial Secretary in Nassau. Since then the family has encompassed politicians, lawyers, poets, artists, sailors and singers. Indeed, current CEO and President John Christie abandoned a bohemian lifestyle as a touring musician to join the company in 1993, creating The Bahamas’ first real estate website and expanding the business from one small struggling Nassau office to nine throughout The Bahamas, with over 2,400 listings on most islands and a sale almost every day of the week.

The original founder of the company in 1922 was Harold George Christie (1896-1973), whose tireless work to promote The Bahamas and philanthropic services earned him a CBE in 1949 and a Knighthood in 1964. Sir Harold – or HG as he was more commonly known – was the son of the Poet Laureate of The Bahamas Henry Christopher (1866 to 1930). A civil servant, evangelist and preacher, Henry earned accolades for his 1929 poem Blackbeard – A Romance of the Bahamas. His wife Margaret, née Saunders, bore 21 children of which 13 survived, and the couple was often poor.

HG, by contrast, married late, fathered no children and became one of the richest men in the country. He worked hard for his fortune. In 1917, he enlisted in the fledgling Royal Canadian Air Force as a cadet pilot, and in his early 20s attended night school at New York State College while working as a journalist for Albany newspaper The Knickerbocker Press.

According to a 1979 Bahamas Handbook article by Benson McDermott, HG worked his way back to Nassau as a steward on a ship from New York and landed at the age of 25 as broke as the day he left.  “He had to borrow a pair of trousers from his brother Percy to go job-hunting,” the article said. “An Englishman named Guy Baxter purchased and was sub-dividing the Grove Estate, so he cycled two miles and introduced himself.  ‘I’m Harold Christie …  and I’d like to sell this property for you’.”

HG took immense risks with limited funds by buying tracts of land no one else wanted, and by virtue of his social skills, unflinching patience and sheer hard work, forged the country’s real estate industry almost single-handedly. He charmed thousands of overseas investors into buying land in The Bahamas and, as a pilot, was able to make canny use of the new opportunities offered by aviation to see, show, and sell the archipelago. By 1936 he and his friend Sir Harry Oakes, the wealthiest resident of the colony, established Bahamas Airways Limited, and they thus became the founding fathers of Bahamian commercial aviation.

HG’s friendship with Oakes led to his involvement in one of the most controversial and gruesome mysteries of the country’s history. He was a guest in Sir Harry’s Cable Beach mansion in 1943 when his host was brutally murdered in the adjacent room. To this day, the case remains unsolved. Though HG was never considered a suspect, he wasn’t without notoriety. In 1924 during the Prohibition, J Edgar Hoover, as Acting Director of the Bureau of Investigation, issued an arrest warrant for HG for an alleged illegal sale of a schooner, but mistakenly used a photo of his brother Percy on the poster. The warrant seems to have disappeared along with the Prohibition.

World War II saw the building of two RAF bases in Nassau and a Naval Operating Base in Great Exuma, and as the population blossomed and economy boomed, the continuing growth of aviation allowed investors to jet to and from Europe and the Americas to their residences in The Bahamas, which transitioned from second homes to primary ones.

The New York Times proclaimed in its 1973 obituary that HG “was one of the first to realize the potential of the Bahamas as a vacation land, and played a major role in the development of Nassau and the outer islands in the West Indies Archipelago.”

Investors HG attracted to the islands included Sterling Hayden, Electrolux’s Axel Wenner-Gren, who owned what is now Paradise Island, RAF Air Commodore Ian Bonham-Carter, Alfred P Sloane of General Motors, William S Paley of Time Magazine, Wallace Groves, who went on to found Freeport, Lord Beaverbrook, and many more.

Austin T Levy formed the Harrisville Company in Hatchet Bay, Eleuthera, for farming, dairy, pineapples and more, and Arthur Vining Davis, head of Alcoa, developed Three Bays Farms on 30,000 acres he picked up from HG in Rock Sound. Pan Am founder Juan Trippe developed the Cotton Bay Club on southern Eleuthera and others sprung up and flourished, including the Lyford Cay Club. HG had bought the swampy and undeveloped Lyford Cay on the western tip of Nassau in 1927 with fellow investors. It became one of the first residential gated communities in the world and among the most exclusive, and illustrates HG’s dogged persistence in the wake of his father’s dismissal of the area as a hopeless swamp. He studied the terrain from the air and trusted his instinct that it had potential, buying masses of acres from different sellers which he merged into two separate tracts. The large tract astride the western tip of the capital island was sold to EP Taylor in 1954, thus validating HG’s nose for lucrative real estate. Both men settled in Lyford Cay.

In December 1962 the Nassau Agreement was made in Lyford Cay by US President John F Kennedy, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, and Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.

One of HG’s most successful strategies for attracting investors to The Bahamas was to spend at least a month every year at Claridge’s Hotel in London, rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful.

Along with his brothers Percy and Frank, HG was one of the “Bay Street Boys” of the old guard; members of a white oligarchy who largely controlled the economics and politics of the colony. All three brothers were politically active and from 1927 to 1966 HG was a member of the Bahamas House of Assembly, first elected to represent Abaco, then Cat Island in the 1930s.

For most of his life he lived as a bachelor, preferring to eat soused fish stews with his staff and policemen who would walk over from the station across the street in downtown Nassau; boating and flying through the Out Islands; supporting artists and in 1957, financing the founding of Chelsea Pottery, which helped nurture many notable Bahamian artists, including the famous R Brent Malone.

In 1960 HG married Virginia Campbell, who brought a son to the marriage, artist Bill Johnson. HG and Lady Christie enjoyed their final years at Simms Point, Lyford Cay, on a peninsula overlooking Clifton Bay.

Christie continued to sell real estate right up to his death in 1973, the same year The Bahamas gained independence. The New York Times in its obituary noted that he was “instrumental in the creation of many of the most celebrated real estate developments in The Bahamas, including … Windermere Island on Eleuthera, Great Harbour Cay in the Berry Islands, and Hawk’s Nest Cay and Pigeon Cay in Cat Island. He was a tireless promoter of the many islands that made up his native country.”

Johnson’s daughter Fina, who worked for a time at HG Christie Ltd, said her step-grandfather’s success had much to do with work ethic and vision. “He saw a million-dollar property where other people just saw mud,” she said. “I think he was a visionary, and I think he had passion for the islands. What he did was absolutely charming and real, and people just flocked to him.”

The family-run tradition of the firm continued after HG’s death with first his brother Frank stepping up to the helm until his death five years later. Then his nephew Peter, a successful lawyer and avid sailor, kept the company afloat in hopes that his son John would take over once he had his fill of trying to be a rock star in the US.

John’s ambition was to “make it” with his band Floating Boats by the time he was 25. But he also vowed not to become one of the many musicians who were penniless at 40. After he graduated from Hampshire College in Massachusetts with degrees in music and social sciences, his parents give him a couple thousand dollars and told him to fend for himself, which he did for the next seven years.

“I lived in Northampton and Boston from hand to mouth as a bike messenger and struggling musician,” he says. “My family never gave me another cent until I moved back to The Bahamas, which was hugely character building.”

When he lost his job as a bike messenger, John decided to make the old van he had bought to take his band on tour double up as an income earner. “That became my first business, A Man with a Van. The money poured in, relatively speaking, and I learned that being your own boss pays.”

In 1993 at the age of 30, John had missed his self-imposed deadline to “make it” by five years, and decided it was time to return home to the family business. To his dismay, he was told he was “crazy” to go into real estate at a time when the sector was regarded as dead with just a few companies left, limping along. “HGC had been losing money probably every year for the previous 15 years or so,” John says, “but my father Peter felt it still had potential and had faith in me that I could turn it around.”  His father was right – and John very quickly breathed fire into the business that many had felt was on its last legs.

One of John’s first initiatives was to persuade Peter to invest in the purchase and renovation of the offices they were renting from McAlpine’s, next door to HG’s old home Cascadilla. “To me business is common sense. You need to know and focus on having more money coming in than going out each day. But you also need to spend money to make money. That’s the way I looked at it.”

At the same time he set to work hauling the company into the 21st century by digitizing the office and creating the country’s first real estate website and digital property management system. The firm roared back to life.

“I was fast learning the works. But it helped a lot that I was able to use the business acumen I had gained from working in the music business, which is super-tough, having to fight with club managers and agents to get paid after a performance,” John says.

The timing also turned out to be on John’s side. “It was fortuitous that when I started in 1993, a new FNM government had come into power which introduced legislation to improve conditions for investors. So, I was there on the ground in the right place at the right time for expansion when people started flocking back to The Bahamas.”

Though it may seem hard to believe today, John says that while the company was generally held in high regard, it was considered ineffective at closing sales. “But rather than be discouraged, I thought to myself, I don’t have anything else to do, I’m not trained in anything else, so I may as well just do my best. And I took the turnaround challenge on.”

He adds: “I was always open to new ideas. When the internet came, we were the first to embrace it in 1995 when it was still in its infancy. A lot of our competitors didn’t get it. They didn’t really know what it was. So, we were first with our own domain, first on the internet. And that really catapulted us from being just a smaller one of many companies to where we needed to be. We weren’t there yet, but we were starting to be head and shoulders above the competition. Before the MLS, everyone would go to our site to see what was on the market. That really pushed us out there.”

In 2003, HGC won the first Bahamas Web Awards in three key categories: Best of The Bahamas, Best Programmer, and the top prize in non-tourism, and since then has continued to win top accolades and awards for its web presence.

John’s first big sale was in 1995 when he sold the 12-acre Dale House on Lake Cunningham, originally built by Sir Harry Oakes’ widow Lady Eunice. But his forte became selling private islands. “While there’s stiff competition,” John says, “We have become a leader in that niche in The Bahamas.”

In 1997, John negotiated a partnership with the realty subsidiary of global luxury auction house Christie’s of London, headquartered at Rockefeller Center in New York City. As exclusive Bahamas Affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate, HGC was now firmly established as a force to be reckoned with.

That same year, after watching her brother John take the company from strength to strength, Cara Christie joined the team as an agent. Their father Peter continued in a figurehead role as President, as well in-house lawyer and consultant, while John managed the day-to-day running of the company. Six years later, John’s nephew Dwayne Wallas also came on board, making HGC truly a family affair.

In 2003, John started building a back-end office and contact relationship management system from scratch, that would help further increase efficiency, productivity and innovation. It took two years to complete.

“At that time the ‘cloud’ didn’t exist, so moving the entire business onto the internet was a paradigm shift in the market. Even today everything we built still works. When the pandemic lockdowns came, and everyone had to work from home, our team didn’t miss a beat because everything we do is already online, and had been for the previous 15 years.

“I’m not a tech guy, but I had a dream, and I dared to ask others who had the know-how: ‘Can you do it?’ Since then, and to this day, I have never seen anything like our system when I go to the trade shows,” John says.

Today, the 40 or so realtors and brokers that comprise HGC sell around 300 properties a year – almost one every weekday – and the company remains the market leader in island sales. HGC prides itself on catering to all markets and dealing with all manner of clients from working families to billionaires.

Despite good breaks and great forethought, and just like the islands it represents, HGC has weathered significant storms – such as the Great Depression of the 1930s, the dot-com bust of 2000 and the crash of 2008 and ensuing Great Recession, when almost nothing sold for an entire year. “Those were really bad times. We would pay the staff, keep them going, keep the company going. And we were able to hold on while others went under or were forced to downsize.”

In the lean times customers demonstrate a flight to quality, and the HGC brand enabled the team to capitalize on that. “When the market shrinks you have to be prepared – stick it out, have reserves, not get into trouble, continue to treat your clients well. I recall a lot of sleepless nights spent worrying, because once you’re at the helm of a large company, there’s a lot of payroll and other significant costs.” John points out that the team which keeps HGC on top­­ must be incentivized, rewarded, and HGC works hard to keep them retained.

But even success has pitfalls. “One problem now is that we, as an industry, might sell too much, so the market could sell itself out and exhaust supply. With fewer properties on the market, their value will go up. On that basis, it could become impossible to repeat the unprecedented success we have had this past two years, just because there may not be as many properties available to sell.”

Christie and his family were shaped and formed like an ivory-colored sandbar by the turquoise currents of an archipelago 700 vast. One of the earliest to see them from the air, HG Christie did more than simply sell the beaches which are so vivid they are visible from space. He himself flew afar to find those who could afford to buy beaches, buy islands, develop them, and bring others to The Bahamas. And he always seemed to have fun doing it. His nephew Peter ran the firm with one hand on the tiller of his beloved sailboat Balemena, and his grand-nephew John kept one hand on a microphone, doing occasional gigs throughout the years. No doubt his father Henry Christopher, Poet Laureate of The Bahamas, would appreciate this continuing creative streak.

One hundred years ago, the young Harold G Christie made his start on a bike in borrowed trousers. He harnessed the power of aviation to rocket Bahamian realty ahead. Today HG Christie Ltd moves at the speed of terabytes, and John harnessed the internet as his great uncle had aviation. The same family values and integrity and innovation anchor the firm like the sturdy anchors cherished by boaters in the sandy Bahamas.

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