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."
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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