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Paradise the Hard Way

What does it really take to build an island resort, a dream come true in the tropics, a place where work and fun and family all blend seamlessly? Hint: Note the machetes.

BUSINESS TOOLS: First on the to-do list for Jay Viola (left) and Jim Kimball: Clear the jungle. By Hand.


Rob Howard

THE HOME FRONT: Stefanie Viola (left) and Reneé Kimball funded the enterprise from Texas.

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From: jlkimball@onebox.com
To: rhkimball@onebox.com
Date: December 15, 1999

I'm getting pretty good at hacking through the jungle. I found out quickly that the two most important pieces of equipment are rubber boots and a machete. The last two days have been very nice. Thank god the rain broke, and we have been searching hard. I went to the southeast side of Bastimentos and chopped my way from the Caribbean side all the way across the isthmus to the bay side. The jungle in there is beautiful.

Each day I learn something new that I shouldn't touch. Spines, hooks, prickers, sap, trees full of bugs, termites, ants -- all the routine jungle stuff. This is a real education.

From: rhkimball@onebox.com
To: jlkimball@onebox.com
Date: December 3, 2000

I want you home so bad I can taste it. I don't want to decorate the Christmas tree or for that matter find a tree on my own. Last year was very difficult. This year at least we will be together for Christmas day. But Christmas is about the whole month of December and everything that leads up to Christmas day. This is the second year in a row that we are missing all of that together.

I can't wait to be with you full-time again. It is getting difficult to fall back on what we have built when I don't get to see you. I need you and everything about you. I can't do another year of this.

The binder is black and unadorned. Inside, a title page reads: "JLK & RHK Communications (Love Letters)." The 167 pages of e-mails that follow recount tales of ailing dogs and three-toed sloths, migraine headaches and a foot sliced open by an anchor, stress management by yoga and stress management by beers quaffed at tumbledown seaside bars. Mostly, the e-mails recount the love and longing of Renée and Jim Kimball. When the Kimballs' two children are old enough to read, they will have this story, of how their parents endured years of separation and hope-flattening ordeals to build a home and a business in back of the back of beyond.

The Kimballs and their partners, Jay and Stefanie Viola, are founders of Tranquilo Bay, an eco-adventure lodge on the island of Bastimentos in Panama. The resort is lovely -- Somerset Maugham meets Martha Stewart, with creamy stucco buildings, concrete paths bordered by delicate tea lights, and ubiquitous ceiling fans thwocking away at the damp, lazy air. The surrounding jungle graciously permits this man-made intrusion, contributing lushly flowering bushes and a perpetual concert of birdsong that brings to mind bicycle horns and falsetto gargling. Heavy raindrops slalom down drooping palm fronds and plunk, plunk, plunk onto shady wooden porches. Guests hike, fish, snorkel, swim, and sail to adjacent islands, where they can visit an Indian village or a tiny chocolate factory run by a couple of expats.

As a business, Tranquilo Bay is strictly small papayas. The founders have invested $900,000, and the revenue projection for this year -- their third of operation -- is just $350,000. Nightly rates start at about $240 per person, and occupancy varies from less than 30 percent in the wet season to 100 percent in the Panamanian summer (winter in the United States). They don't expect to crack a million before 2012, when their six guest cabanas will be supplemented with a second set of six.

That's OK. Tranquilo Bay exists to make its owners happy rather than rich. Yet the sacrifice, ingenuity, and resilience that went into building this modest enterprise make all but the most ambitious start-ups sound easy.

Tranquilo Bay's founders, all of them Texans, made the same mistakes as many other first-time sojourners in foreign lands. They bulked up on facts about corporate taxes, minimum-wage requirements, and property and materials costs, all of which are mostly favorable in Panama. But they neglected the nuances of culture, the "we're not in Houston anymore" factor. And there was no formal apparatus, no easy on-ramp for foreign investors, to help them.

The founders also failed to recognize the sheer physical difficulty of their undertaking. That miscalculation dashed their plans to contract out most of the work and finish in two years. Instead it took five years to build Tranquilo Bay, with Jim Kimball and Jay Viola acting as their own architects, engineers, and the most manual of laborers. Endless delays weighed mightily on their spouses, who roomed together back home and worked -- with growing loneliness and frustration -- to fund the vision.

The launching of any business overseas is the kind of adventure entrepreneurs dream about. The launch of Tranquilo Bay, with its complement of alligators, boa constrictors, and natives in dugout canoes, is the kind of adventure kids read about in their backyard tents with a flashlight. That the resort not only exists but also attracts plaudits from customers and travel journalists is testimony to the founders' resourcefulness and determination. But eager imitators be forewarned: It's a jungle out there.

From their courtship days, Jim Kimball assured Renée that life with him would not be ordinary. The two met, in 1990, at the University of Texas, where Kimball was studying economics and sociology. His dream was to open a fishing lodge in an exotic locale. He wanted to wake up every morning in someplace beautiful. Renée, a marketing major, had been camping exactly once. But she loved the idea of nesting with Jim in paradise, a vision that grew more enticing once she completed law school and started working 15-hour days. In 1992, the couple befriended Jay Viola, a graduate of Texas A&M and a childhood friend of Jim Kimball's cousin. Viola, too, had been dreaming the fishing-lodge dream, and the three joined forces. They planned to work hard and live cheaply until they had accrued enough to light out for the territories.

So the Kimballs and Viola took corporate jobs and bought stock with their earnings. Jim Kimball did sales for a petrochemical company; Renée worked for engineering and energy firms; and Viola sold advertising and electrical supplies. In seven years they rolled up $450,000, and they hit the ejector button right before the market slammed into a wall. Meanwhile, they researched potential locations. "We wanted something off the beaten path, still in its natural state," says Jim. "We would study the atlas, then go to chart stores and buy marine charts from the British Admiralty or the U.S. Navy." On vacations they scouted locations in person, starting in the Bahamas, proceeding around the Gulf of Mexico, then heading down into Central America. "Going counterclockwise, Panama was the last stop," says Jim.

In October 1999, Jim and Jay touched down in Bocas del Toro, a dusty, funky former outpost of the United Fruit Company on the Caribbean Sea. An hour's flight from Panama City, Bocas is the clasp in a necklace of 68 tropical islands whose natural endowments provoke paroxysms of travel-writing-ese: secluded lagoons, gaudy coral reefs, flora and fauna decked out in a Crayola box of colors. That year the rainy season wasn't living up to its name; when the partners arrived, the weather was glorious and the tuna abundant. (Fish stocks, the entrepreneurs soon learned, vary with the season, so they tweaked their business model to eco-tourism.) There was an airport for bringing in customers. Land was cheap. And a law in Costa Rica requiring noncitizen retirees to leave the country for 72 hours every three months guaranteed wavelets of visitors lapping constantly at the shore.

The partners agreed: Panama was it. They flew home to discuss who would quit his job first. Renée Kimball had always intended to remain in Houston while the resort was under construction, diverting most of her substantial salary to the business. "We decided it would be easier for me, because I had been at the same company for nine years, and if things didn't work out, I could put my tail between my legs and come back," says Jim. In December, he moved down to Bocas del Toro.

For 10 days, Kimball cruised the Caribbean coastline in a small skiff. When an island looked promising, he would wade to it through the mangrove flats. On December 7, he landed on Bastimentos and began whacking his way with a machete through brush as high as 15 feet. Mud sucked at his boots; clouds of black midges floated above mats of dead vegetation. But the land had previously been farmed, so the biggest trees were already felled. The island bordered a national marine park. And although the brush was impenetrable, Kimball could tell from the elevation that the ocean views would be spectacular.

The land was owned by Simon Pitterson, a 60-year-old farmer who lived in a shack on the island's other side. It happened that Kimball's guide wanted to buy a pig from Pitterson's brother, so the guide arranged a visit. Kimball asked Pitterson for a price on the land; the farmer quoted him $15,000 for 18.5 acres. "It took everything I had to show no emotion," Kimball wrote in an e-mail to Renée. "I sat there and acted like I was really thinking about it. Then I told him that I would take it and we shook hands on the deal. On the entire ride home I couldn't believe what had happened. There was a feeling of relief as well as a feeling of nervousness.

"We never got the pig because Simon's brother couldn't catch it."

Jim Kimball embodies what people love about Texans. He is friendly, a folksy raconteur -- the kind of guy who cracks jokes when others would go apoplectic. Jay Viola is wiry and more intense -- a detail man in beach-bum clothing. When they left to build Tranquilo Bay, Renée Kimball presented both men with blank notebooks in which to chronicle their experiences. They stopped writing after a year, but the entries speak to their distinct personalities. Kimball's notebooks read like the diary of Fitzcarraldo adrift in Margaritaville. Viola's are full of lists: chores to do, supplies to purchase, people to pay.

Fortunately, their differences have not prevented them from forging a seemingly indestructible friendship. In Panama, they would need it.

In February 2000, Kimball and Viola rented a cheap room in Bocas, and for the next several months they piloted a boat 10 miles to Bastimentos each day while they constructed a dock at which to land supplies. Anxious to reduce living expenses and shorten their commute, they built a crude living structure on the island, consisting of a wooden platform protected by a roof. On the platform sat a table and chairs; a sink and a shower at ground level were supplied by rainwater. The partners slept on air mattresses inside tents, which were attached to the roof beams by pulleys so they could be lowered at night and raised in the morning. The platform was 6 feet above the ground to minimize incursions by bugs and snakes. Still, spiders the size of thumbs dangled in the corners, baby boa constrictors nestled in the empty cups of egg cartons, and a feral dog managed to scale the structure and yank down plastic bags of food the partners had suspended from the rafters for safekeeping.

Kimball and Viola camped in this structure, which they dubbed the rancho, for more than two years, until the first of the cabanas was habitable. Lacking electricity or communications of any kind, they worked out of notebooks. Six days a week the two would labor on the property. On Sundays they would boat to town, phone their wives, do laundry, and buy groceries to supplement the bananas, mangoes, and other fruit they had gathered on the island. They would also send e-mail and do research on a laptop they kept locked up at a dive shop owned by Chip Pickard, a fellow Houstonian who had preceded them to Panama. After a meal in a restaurant, they would sleep on the dive shop's floor. Monday morning it was back to work. "There wasn't a lazy bone in either of those boys' bodies," recalls Pickard. "They were out there every day with their sleeves rolled up, dirty, up to their asses in alligators in that mangrove swamp."

They had no choice. Heavy machinery couldn't be transported to the island. Before Kimball and Viola could build anything, they had to clear nearly eight acres by machete.

Help arrived in a dugout canoe. One day, in June 2000, an Indian appeared, floating off their dock. He called out, "Trabajo?" -- which even Kimball and Viola recognized as the word for work.

The partners hired six Indians from the Ngoble-Bugle tribe to help clear land and brought on more as the project progressed. The Ngoble-Bugle live in thatched huts lashed together from materials found in the jungle; they needed extensive training and supervision in the American-style construction Kimball and Viola planned. Complicating matters, the Indians spoke a tribal dialect; Spanish was their second language, and they used it awkwardly. The Texans were even less fluent. (They are now more than passable in Spanish.) Communication occurred chiefly through hand gestures or through vocabulary invented on the spot.

All materials arrived at the island by boat and had to be hauled up a staircase-steep hill to the work site. "We would move sand onto a boat in Bocas with wheelbarrows and shovels, bring it out here, and unload it with wheelbarrows and shovels," says Kimball. "We'd put the sand in a cart and a hook on the cart and use a pulley. Two guys would have a yoke, and they'd run down the hill, which would pull the cart up the hill. On days when we used 50 yards of sand, it took 21 workers 11 hours."

When it rained, which was often, the wheelbarrows sank into the mud and became unusable. "It's the same problem they ran into building the canal," says Viola.

At the end of each exhausting day, Kimball and Viola sat for three hours in the rancho, unwilling to tip the insects to their presence by lighting a Coleman lamp. In the dark, they discussed tasks and materials for the next day and ranged wide over the state of the world and the laws of the universe. When questions arose -- for example, how many satellites are in orbit? -- they would consult a copy of the 2000 New York Times Almanac, gone soft and splayed through constant use. In 2004 someone gave them a fresh edition of another almanac, but they had grown so accustomed to the Times's format that they tossed it in favor of the old one.

Given the remoteness of their location, Kimball and Viola knew they couldn't expect to find the same skills and service levels in Bocas as in Houston. But after speaking with architects and contractors on early trips to Panama, they judged what was on offer to be sufficient. So they moved down intending to cede most of the project to experts. "Back in Houston, we would look at an apartment complex, and it would go up in six months," says Kimball. "We thought we'd knock this out."

As perhaps they could have, had they built in the local style. But they wanted to build with steel, to avoid the ravages of termites and make upkeep simple. Their surprise upon discovering that no one in Bocas had a lick of experience with large steel projects is itself surprising, because the rudimentary buildings thrown up along the town's dirt roads strongly suggest an undemanding approach to shelter. Unable to find an architect in Bocas who could do the job, Kimball and Viola used their Sunday Internet sessions to research steel construction, and they hung out at construction sites during their visits home. In the end, they designed all of Tranquilo Bay's buildings themselves, then taught a Bocas architect to render them into AutoCAD so they could get government approval.

The partners used the same approach -- Web research and questioning experts in the United States -- to design Tranquilo Bay's electrical, septic, and water systems. With advice and parts from a Motorola (NYSE:MOT) dealer, they erected a 150-foot communications tower for Internet access, shimmying up the structure as it grew.

Recruiting manual labor was almost as hard. The project was big and difficult, and most people live in Bocas for the waves, not the work. Men hired in town would show up, work a day or two, then disappear. The Texans tried out 13 people before they found someone competent to lay cement. One expat they hired to paint exteriors turned up on his first day drunk and soaked from tumbling into the sea. No one had any experience in welding or laying tile -- including the founders. True to form, Kimball and Viola would research those tasks on the Internet one day and train workers to do them the next.

Five and a half years after Kimball and Viola laid the first piece of dock, Tranquilo Bay opened for business. Now foreign entrepreneurs visit the resort and take from it their own ideas of what is possible. And the founders -- babes in the rain forest for so long -- have become informal consultants. "We are now a licensed construction company," says Kimball. "We learned the hard way how things work. We could have a whole business just helping other expats start businesses."

From: rhkimball@onebox.com
To: jlkimball@onebox.com
Date: April 24, 2000

I have dreams about you and the distance in between us. I had a weird dream where we were using a cell phone to transport us around Houston and the GTE phone couldn't get us to where we needed to go because it kept losing its signal. We were floating up in the air like one of those video games I can't watch.

It takes only a few hours in the company of Jim and Renée Kimball to see that they are each other's lives. They knew it would be difficult to be apart, but someone had to keep the money coming and handle supply shipments and other arrangements from the States. As for Stefanie Viola, she didn't meet Jay until the project was under way, but she waved goodbye to her husband just two weeks after their marriage, in January 2000. The wives began sharing a $300-a-month house to reduce expenses. Jim and Jay took turns coming home, and occasionally their wives traveled to the island. Separations lasted six weeks, then eight weeks, then three months.

In 2001, Stefanie Viola became pregnant. Scott was born in 2002, and the Kimballs' intention to wait for children crumbled shortly thereafter. In 2003, Renée gave birth to a son, Tres. Three years later a daughter, Boty, was born in Panama. With construction nearing completion in 2004, Renée and Tres finally joined Jim in Panama. A few weeks later, Stefanie and Scott arrived, and the couples celebrated their reunion by switching on the island's generators. The families were together at last, and they had refrigeration to boot.

On a rain-fresh afternoon in February, Renée and Jim Kimball emerge after lunch onto a wooden porch that wraps around the second-story dining room of the main lodge. A rare white hawk swoops past, and Jim rambles off to get a better look. Renée watches him go, then shifts her gaze to the canopy of coconut palms and banana trees rolling down to the sea. "When I'm the first one up, I come up here to make coffee, and I see the sun rising and look out over all of this," she says. "And I'm like, 'Pinch me.' "

Indeed, there is a dreamy quality to life at Tranquilo Bay. One day is much like another: the normal crises of business softened by the Zen-like stasis of the natural world. The families wake around 6:30. Before breakfast, nine full-time employees wander up to the main lodge from their dormitory. Several Indians float up to the dock in dugouts; they will spend the day beating back the encroaching brush and performing other outdoor chores. The jungle orchestra tunes its instruments.

During the day, Jim and Jay lead tours to other islands and hike, snorkel, swim, dive, and fish with their guests. "I spend about 75 percent of my time doing things that most people do on vacation," says Kimball. At the resort, Stefanie arranges stalks of deep-pink and red ginger in the cabanas, chitchats with guests, and pitches in where needed. Renée handles bookings, manages staff, and works on Tranquilo Bay's multiple websites.

All day long the children, under supervision of an employee, wander in and out of their parents' presence, pausing for a kiss or to exhibit a captive lizard or frog. Most afternoons, one of the men takes the boys swimming. All three children are bilingual; the families plan to educate them first in Spanish, later in Spanish and English. (They are hiring a tutor to live on the island.) "It's such a healthy way for them to grow up," says Renée. "They're outdoors so much. They're attuned to nature. I'll be walking with Tres, and he'll hear a bird and say, 'Mom, is that a red-lored amazon?' "

In the evening, after cocktails, guests gather at long wooden tables to dine on seafood chimichangas and chayote, a Latin squash. As they eat, Jim and Jay regale them with stories of Tranquilo Bay's founding. Jim cheerfully explains his process for extracting caimans -- the caiman is a relative of the alligator -- from the trenches they dug for the septic system: "Grab a stick. Torment the thing until it locks onto it. Then walk it like a dog off to the side. Let go of the stick. Get another stick. Tap him on the butt. He'll run into the bush and you can resume work." Everyone, from the sedate couple in their 60s to the 14-year-old amateur herpetologist, is agog.

The entrepreneurs call their home paradise, but doing business here still requires patience and a taste for the absurd. Although Panama's government is increasingly business friendly, many local services remain quaint. To pay their taxes, Tranquilo Bay's owners must travel to town once a month and hand their paperwork to an official who meets them at a hospital. Despite Panama City's status as a banking epicenter, Bocas has just one antiquated bank branch. Getting a replacement ATM card took much of a year.

Meanwhile, the residents of Bocas -- locals and foreigners alike -- can be colorful to the point of exasperation. Jim Kimball recounts how he loaned his canoe to an expat bar owner who told him he needed it to build a dock. Returning from a business trip a week later, Kimball saw the new dock from his airplane window -- and realized that his boat had been incorporated into the structure. (He never got it back. The bar owner apologized and offered to comp the families on beer.)

Still, like boa constrictors in egg-carton cups, these irritations have their charms. Even with the frustrations, the Texans say they wouldn't trade this life for any other.

Their first Christmas in Panama, four years after Renée's sad, solitary holiday in Houston, the Kimballs climbed into a boat and rocketed through the chop to the Zapatilla Cayes, a pair of islands that are part of the barrier reef guarding Bastimentos. On the deserted beach they built a racecar out of sand around 13-month-old Tres, for whom automobiles were as scarce and exciting as howdah-bearing elephants. Later, the three sported like seals in the 80-degree ocean. "White beach, turquoise water, warm breeze, family," Jim recalls fondly. "How's that for merry Christmas?"

Leigh Buchanan is an Inc. editor-at-large.

To see a slide show about the construction of Tranquilo Bay, go here.
IMAGE: Rob Howard
Last updated: May 1, 2008

LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.
@LeighEBuchanan




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